14 August 2003

Collectables: Emily Kame Kngwarreye

The market aand experts differ on the value of early and late works by the legendary indigenous artist, Emily Kame Kngwarreye.

Undoubted highlight of last month’s bumper Sotheby’s Aboriginal art auction was the sale of the late great Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s 1991 canvas, Untitled (Spring Celebration).

Bidding on this sensual colour field of green, brown and yellow dots was the most competitive at the 560-lot sale, with four bidders on the phone and several dealers and collectors in the room vying for the prize.

The hammer eventually fell for a Swiss private collector who bid $463,000 – more than three times Kngwarreye’s previous auction benchmark, one of 17 saleroom records set for individual artists at the $7.4 million auction.

But what’s in a record? Are we to assume that this work was the pinnacle of Kngwarreye’s extraordinary achievement?

“These aren’t her best works in my opinion,” says Emily expert, Margot Neale, curator of Kngwarreye’s landmark 1998 national touring retrospective – the first ever for an Aboriginal artist.

“They’re very beautiful and there’s a quiet poetry about these early dot paintings,” says Neale. “But Emily didn’t pick up a brush until 1989, when she was in her late seventies. These works are only two years into her [eight-year] career," said Neale, now director of the First Australians Gallery at the Australian National Museum in Canberra.

“In my opinion Emily really came into her own with those looser, more gestural works of 1993-94, when she put all her verve and passion into it.

"She had enormous physical strength in her arms and hands from a lifetime of camel-driving and in the later works she really gives vent to that physicality on the canvas.”

The market begs to differ. But then the market judged at Sotheby’s corresponding sale in 1995 that a similar work to the new record breaker, Flowers of Alagura 1991, was worth only $2,300.

Meanwhile works from what Neale (and others) regard as Kngwarreye’s best period are still going for more modest prices of around $30,000 and up. Canny investors might look to what is called counter-cyclical buying and snap up these bargains while they last.

But, again, for those that buy for money there is always a downside – they will eventually have to part with a work of art whose aesthetic value is priceless.

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Abridged version first published in The Bulletin

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