12 August 2004

Collectables: Rover Thomas

Doubting Thomas: After the high-profile failure of a 'million-dollar' Rover Thomas painting, Sotheby's are questioning the state galleries' commitment to Aboriginal art.

It looked a cinch on paper. An exceptional painting by Australia’s most famous indigenous artist, Rover Thomas, depicting the country’s most mythical physical feature, Uluru. The perfect work on which to hang publicity for the annual blockbuster sale of Important Aboriginal Art at Sotheby’s in Melbourne late last month.

The NYSE-listed company went for broke, pegging the upper estimate at an astonishing AUD$1,000,000. Out went the press releases: “Million Dollar Painting on Display”. Dutifully, out went the newspaper previews, noting Aboriginal art’s “first million dollar painting” in headlines, body copy and captions.

Noone thought to mention that the figure was just an educated, but essentially hopeful, guess on the part of Sotheby’s Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender. Nobody asked why this painting was worth more than $200k above Thomas’s current auction record, [which is also that for any Aboriginal artist]. Notwithstanding the Aboriginal sector’s astounding growth in recent years, nobody bothered to ask who had a million dollars for an indigenous work, given the current benchmark had been set not by a private collector but by a state art gallery, and that the galleries haven’t splurged on a major indigenous work at auction since.

Back in 2001, when the National Gallery of Australia went to $786,625 to secure Thomas's "All That Big Rain Coming From Top Side", saleroom watchers gasped that the top end of the market could run so far ahead of the pack. Were market forces really speaking, or where they being amplified through the megaphone of Sotheby’s slick marketing?

These observers weren’t surprised to see "Uluru" passed in for $675k, failing even to meet it’s lower estimate of $700k. “It was a good painting, but not outstanding,” said one rival auction house expert. “The price it passed in at was a fair one.” While admitting his estimate had scared off potential buyers, Klingender bemoaned the fact that Australia’s collecting institutions weren’t coming to his party.

“It’s amazing the state galleries aren’t here picking the eyes out of our catalogue," Klingender told The Bulletin. "The National Museum of Australia bought three works…, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought one, but none of them are buying at the top end – everything above $100k all went to private collectors.”

Sotheby’s sustained foray into the Aboriginal art market since the mid 1990s has been met with disdain and suspicion by the country’s major collecting institutions. Klingender can’t fathom the snub. “The curators of these galleries don’t even come to the previews – it’s ridiculous and small-minded.”

Ironically, the Rover flop cruelled the headlines for what was otherwise another sensational sale from Sotheby’s: $6.5 million in total sales with bullish clearance rates of around 70 per cent both by lot and by value. Among the more than 60 new artist auction records set were such eminently collectable artists as Charlie Tararu Tjungurrayi (new benchmark $215,200); Dorothy Napangardi ($131,725) and Eubena Nampitjin ($52,200).

Collectors need not fear, the indigenous art market’s perpetual boom remains intact, though Sotheby’s position as market leader is under assault as rival houses, Lawson~Menzies, Christie’s, Bonham & Goodmans and Shapiro’s have all commenced moves to grab a slice of this dynamic art market sector.


Abridged version published in The Bulletin

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