6 December 2001

Collectables: Export vs. Heritage

Auction stations: The export market for indigenous artworks is being stymied by bureaucracy, argue the auction houses. But not surprisingly, Michael Hutak reports, the bureaucrats disagree.

What is more important? Australia’s multi-million dollar international market for Aboriginal art, or the value of that art to the cultural heritage of the nation as a whole? That’s the crucial question driving tensions between international auction house Sotheby’s and the federal government’s Movable Cultural Heritage Committee.

Five months after its annual sale of Aboriginal art in July, Sotheby’s is still waiting for the MCHC to decide whether seven works knocked down at the auction will be granted export licences to leave the country with their new owners. The auction house faced a similar situation in 2000 and the subsequent denying of export permits for three works resulted in the sales being cancelled and, according to Sotheby’s, the vendors being unable to achieve the proper market value for their paintings.

Sotheby’s 2001 sale again broke all auction records for Aboriginal art, with sales totalling $5m. But for the company’s Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender, the worrying statistic is the percentage of works bought by overseas collectors, which fell by more than a third from 69% to 39%.

“It’s been nothing short of a disaster for us,” says Klingender. “International confidence in the Aboriginal art market is being affected. We have been advised by the largest private collector of Aboriginal art in the United States that he will not bid on any lot that does not have an export permit prior to the auction being held.”

Klingender says he told the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, which administers the relevant act, before the sale that some 75 works fell within the act’s guidelines for assessment. But the department would accept only 15 applications, eventually denying export licences to seven works.

After the auction, the department required 16 more works go to the MCHC for assessment, seven of which are still in limbo. A spokesperson told The Bulletin that to process 75 works within Sotheby’s timeframe would have “overburdened the committee; delayed other applications for objects that were definitely intended for overseas export; and risked a more superficial assessment of the cultural significance of the works”.

Klingender claims Sotheby’s has no problem with important works being banned from leaving the country as part of cultural heritage. But he maintains “the irregular meetings of the MCHC contributes to a process that is unacceptably long and frustrating to all involved”. He says: “We want the whole process to be streamlined. The expert examiners of works who advise the committee should be remunerated for their time and expertise and time limits and deadlines placed on their assessments.”

Brenda Croft is the indigenous art expert on the heritage committee. An Aboriginal artist and curator who has just been appointed curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Australia, she is unmoved by the auction house’s criticisms.

“People [on the committee] aren’t just there sitting on things,” she says. “We aren’t out to hamper the market but I don’t have a great deal of empathy because I’m not here to further the interests of the auction houses or commercial galleries. Our primary interest here is to protect cultural heritage, not to facilitate sales of work.”

With key US and European collectors refusing to consider works without an export permit in place, one leading Melbourne dealer in Aboriginal art said the act had effectively halved international prices and it was having a knock-on effect in the domestic market, creating an artificial, two-tiered market.

“I don’t take that argument on board,” says Croft. “There are many, many works that have secured permits. And besides, with a lot of the works that do go overseas, the onsale doesn’t go back to the artists, anyway, because these are secondary sales.”

This differs from the situation in the European Union, for example, where artists have a legal right of resale – or droit de suite – in which they are granted a percentage, usually 2% to 5%, of any resale of an original work.

“We’re not here to stop people selling,” says Croft. “But in my own mind I’ve had problems with seeing indigenous works sometimes seemingly traded like stock and bonds, particularly when I know there’s no right of resale to the artists.”

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First published in The Bulletin

1 December 2001

Letter to Australia

Hi, allow me to introduce myself. I'm a fully paid-up member of the chattering classes, the new elites, one of the cafe-latte set, a chardonnay-sipping champagne socialist (if there is such a thing). I'm no action man, all I do is talk.

I'm a politically correct, university educated, inner-city wanker who has no real affinity with 'the vast mainstream' of Australia, or even 'basic Australian values' like mateship, 'a fair go' or unfettered free market capitalism. If I did I wouldn't feel totally disenfranchised by the recent re-election of the Howard government.

Since this momentous event I've been trying come to terms with my own irrelevancy. According to this country's professional right-wing media blowhards and a thousand letter-to-the-editor writers, cultural gatekeepers like me should just give up now. Or at the very least just piss off for three years while little Johnny gets on with important jobs like directing people trafficking in the South Pacific or privatizing any profitable government entity still left in public hands.

Apparently, anyone who voted against John Howard - and by polling day there were 49 per cent of us - was simply out of step with grassroots opinion. We have no affinity with the battlers, the workers, the people, the suburbs or the bush. We have no idea how tough things are 'out there'; especially for those 'ordinary decent' Australians trying to 'cope with change'. We wouldn't have the first idea how difficult it is for them to hold onto their racist views while all around them they are being swamped by 'different faces'. It's the likes of social engineers like us who are always trying to foist dangerous untested new ideas onto 'ordinary decent' Australians, like 'tolerance' or 'Islam'.

After all, I am one of those Balmain basket-weaving intellectuals who thinks multiculturalism is grouse. I don't give a rat's arse that the country is being swamped by Asians, Afghani terrorists, queue jumpers or even British backpackers overstaying their visas. You see, I'm blind to these and the other real problems facing this nation - like the outrageous unfair dismissal laws, or lesbians that want IVF, or Cheryl Kernot. Actually, Cheryl's not such a problem anymore.

Another substratum of this great nation with whom I'm completely out of touch are the so-called the 'new apsirationals', the wannabe yuppies living in gated housing estates in Sydney's western suburbs who supposedly delivered the rest of us - and John Howard - three more years of pain. The ones that aspire to be in more debt than their neighbours just so they can drive a new Beemer. The ones happy to pay through the nose for private health insurance and 'independent' schools because it makes them feel like they might be middle class one day. The ones who, though they live in the West, wouldn't be caught dead wearing stonewash or smackie-dacks. On that point, neither would I, but overall I'm still very much out of touch with these 'new aspirationals' as well.

The fact that I actually believe that it's a key role of government to provide adequate health and education for all marks me as nothing more than a tree-hugging pinko union thug. You can smell my support for the welfare state a mile away. I stink as much as user-pays. I'm one of those hopeless dreamers who is all for ecologically sustainable development, ethical investing and socially responsible work practices. My support for feminism, affirmative action and direct democracy shows just how impractical I've become. As for Aboriginal reconciliation, well, I'm sorry John Howard's got three more years but I have absolutely no right to do so being one who foolishly clings to the "black armband view of Australian history", as Johnny so capably dismissed it. It may come as a shock, but this ill-informed post-colonial, post-nationalist libertarian also supports a new flag, and I think it would be good to get rid of the Queen (metaphorically speaking). She only takes holidays here anyway.

On that topic, terrorism, I'm afraid, is out for the time being. Along with free speech. I agree with the blowhards here that in these "new and dangerous times" you can't have everyone going around saying what they really think! Unless its Pauline Hanson, of course. As you can guess, I'm also one of that lunatic fringe that thinks Howard got over the line by playing the race card! Imagine that? A politician of his standing and calibre stooping so low as to use the misery of refugees to tap into white Australia's lingering xenophobia. It's enough to make you throw your kids overboard.

What Howard's media attack squad will allow is that in three years, people like me can have another go at ridding this scourge from the body politic. Until then, I'm told, I should just "get over it" and "get on with life". So you can see how out of step I am. What am I gonna do for three years? I need to sit down and have long hard look at myself.

MICHAEL HUTAK