24 July 2003

Collectables: Important Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal art continues to bring the bids and bouquets at Sotheby's in New York.

SCANDALS ASIDE, the Aboriginal art sector has been the most dynamic performer in last five years of Australia’s booming fine art market and Sotheby’s upcoming winter auction of Important Aboriginal Art has become the key barometer of the sector’s health. Each year the local franchise of the NYSE-listed company trumpets “the most valuable collection of Australian indigenous art ever assembled for sale”. Each year the boast is proved correct.

In 2002 Sotheby's shifted a record $5.1 million worth of precious paintings and rare artefacts. This year the 560 lots to be knocked down at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art on July 28 and 29th have been pegged at an upper estimate of $9.69 million. With more than 20 lots listed with estimates above $100k, saleroom records will likely fall for the established hit parade of indigenous artists: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Alec Mingelmanganu, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Dorothy Robinson Napangardi and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.

However, this year’s indisputable highlight, the massive 5 metre by 8 metre Ngurrara Canvas 1, underlines the collaborative nature of much Aboriginal art. Painted in 1996 by 19 artists from the Great Sandy Desert to demostrate their Native Title claim to 800,000 hectares, it is valued between $300,000 and $500,000. Consigned by the artists themselves, it would look nice in a State gallery where everyone could contemplate its ongoing significance: the land claim is still in dispute.

After seeing off a brief challenge from rival auctioneer Deutscher-Menzies in the late 1990s, Sotheby’s virtually has the serious end of the market to itself. This year, with the war in Iraq casting its shadow, the firm’s Sydney-based Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender, cancelled the traditional New York preview, but made up for it by scoring a front page article on the sale in The New York Times. This week (July 23) The New Yorker magazine publishes a similar glowing appraisal.

Sotheby’s prints around 4500 catalogs for the sale and despatches 500 in equal measure to collectors in Europe and North America. Klingender says there are around 100 serious private collectors who consistently bid for works worth more than $50,000, and only about 10 kindred spirits who can afford to wave their paddles at works worth more $500,000. “They are a disparate group of people,” he told The Bulletin, “mainly Swiss, French, Dutch and American. What they all usually have in common is that they’ve visited Australia at some stage and fallen in love with Aboriginal art.”

The record price for an indigenous artwork was paid not by a private collector but by the National Gallery of Australia, which went to $786,625 to secure Rover Thomas's All That Big Rain Coming From Top Side for the national estate, at - where else? - Sotheby’s 2001 sale. The firm has three more important ‘Rovers’ on offer this year with upper estimates scraping $350k. Yet, as The New York Times acknowledged: “The one group of Australian citizens rarely seen in galleries and salesrooms are Aborigines themselves, who are too poor to buy the products of their own culture.”

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First published in The Bulletin