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

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