12 October 2004

Aboriginal art in Paris: In your dreaming


A select slice of Paris’s art collecting elite gathered at elegant rooms on Avenue Matignon earlier this month for auction house Christie’s first-ever exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art. Thirty or so works on preview had been selected especially to tempt European tastes, pulled from 168 lots to be auctioned in Sydney on October 12. Last week another tranche of dots-and-dreaming lots from the sale went on view at Christie’s New York.
The sale itself represents a shake-up in the entire sector. With only sporadic competition, the Aboriginal art auction market has been virtually the personal fiefdom of Sotheby’s aboriginal art specialist Tim Klingender for almost a decade. But this year five different companies are conducting sales of Aboriginal art, with the French-owned Christie’s expected to snare the biggest slice of market share from its arch international rival.

5 October 2004

Art de triomphe: Aboriginal art is booming in France

PARIS, France – A select slice of Paris' collecting elite gathered at elegant rooms on Avenue Matignon last month for auction house Christie's first exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art. Thirty or so works on preview had been selected to tempt European tastes, pulled from 168 lots to be auctioned in Sydney on October 12. Last week another tranche of dots-and-dreaming lots from the sale went on view at Christie's New York. The Aboriginal art auction market has been virtually the personal fiefdom of Sotheby's Aboriginal art specialist Tim Klingender for almost a decade, but this year five different companies are conducting sales, with the French-owned Christie's expected to snare the biggest slice of market share from its arch rival.
Aboriginal art has been booming at home for more than five years, yet internationally the market remains underdeveloped. While European collectors such as Thomas Vroom or Karl-Heinz Essl still account for roughly a third of all auction sales at the top of the market (above $150,000), less than a score of such players operate at this level. Shaun Dennison, who joined Christie's in March to head its new Aboriginal art department, is instead hunting growth opportunities at a lower level. "We're looking to widen the market," says Dennison, "starting with diverting sales of non-indigenous Australian paintings to Aboriginal art."
In a sale with a total value of between $2.5m and $3.5m, about 40% of the lots are estimated under $10,000, and just two above $150,000 - the top lot being Digging Stick Dreaming by Maggie Watson Napangardi.
Dennison's sale is high on quality and he has framed it as "modern Aboriginal art", which he defines as being from 1971 to the present day. "It's from the time Geoffrey Bardon commissioned the Papunya boards to the present day and it's restricted to works on board, paper and canvas. We aren't offering any barks or artefacts or watercolours pre-1970, none of the Hermannsburg artists like Albert Namatjira."
Christie's catalogue raises the bar in providing detailed provenance for every lot, something never seen in the sector before - from Sotheby's or anyone else. "It worries me when an artist is painting for 10 or 20 different sources," says Dennison. "So I've also tried to restrict myself to artists who have shown a commitment to selling through one or two agencies - such as Maggie Watson Napangardi and Gallery Gondwana, or Ginger Riley and Alcaston Gallery. That's where the top quality emerges."
So who attended the Paris preview to savour the swag of Emily Kngwarreyes, Rover Thomases and others? A mostly ageing crew of permanent waves and intellectual beards: twinsets and pearls for madame; basic black wrapped-round gourmand waistlines for monsieur. Canap‚s and champagne downed to an ambient didgeridoo soundtrack rounded out the picture. Nary a black person to be seen - Aboriginal or otherwise.
Attitudes towards Aboriginal art in Europe remain diffuse, undermined by carpetbaggers selling sub-par art by the metre on the internet and held back by poor marketing and antiquated notions that contemporary art by indigenous Australians is only of "anthropological" interest. "It's so very far away, your country, so it's good that these works are shown here," offered the impeccably tailored Eric Agote, a Parisian insurance executive. Agote owns works by Balgo Hills artists Ningie Nangala and Greeny Purvis Petyarre, artists whose works wear the bold graphic designs and direct use of line and colour so favoured among European collectors.
"Collectors here love the line, they love structure and clarity," says art dealer Stephane Jacob, a former curator at the Louvre who has been selling Aboriginal art in Paris for more than eight years. "What flies in Australia can flop in Europe, and vice versa. You find that artists who paint very direct, clean and colourful works - like Linda Syddick Napaljarri or Dave Pwerle Ross - sell very well here but not so well in Australia. But good luck trying to sell a Eubena [Nampitjin] here ..."
Dennison agreed, nominating a work by Balgo Hills artist Helicopter Tjungurrayi, pegged at the $4000 upper estimate, as "being very cheap for Europe".

First published in The Bulletin, Vol.22 No.40

2 October 2004

Deal Me In: Rex Irwin


Rex Irwin has been dealing in works by “important Australian and international artists” from his first floor rooms in Queen Street, Woollahra, since 1976. Irwin’s business is built around a stable of respected, mostly mid-career local artists, and a trade in works by some of the world’s most famous modernists, from Picasso, Hockney, Freud and Auerbach, to Australian icons like Fred Williams and John Brack.

Never lost for an opinion, Irwin is well placed to comment on the changes and trends that pervade Australia’s dynamic market for fine art. He spoke to Michael Hutak.
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MICHAEL HUTAK: Can you tell us a bit about how you started in the game?

REX IRWIN: I learnt my trade back in the 1970s from Frank McDonald, who was a partner with Terry Clune in the old Clune Galleries at the Yellow House [in Kings Cross, Sydney] - Olsen, Whiteley and the rest of them showed there, but Frank would also put on shows of work by (highly regarded 19th century landscape painter) von Guerard before anyone had really noticed him. Frank eventually started his own gallery and was an old-style art dealer who would do things like travel to Paris to find long lost (Rupert) Bunnys from the paint shop where Bunny used to buy his paints. He was essentially repatriating Australian art.

MH: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed since you started you own business?

Art Market Notebook, Spring 2004

Fierce competition heats up Aboriginal sector

Sotheby’s is moving to meet the challenge of competitors snapping at its heels in the lucrative and ever-growing market for fine Aboriginal art

It had to happen. After nearly a decade of stellar growth, Sotheby’s failed for the first time to set a new Australian turnover record for an Aboriginal art auction, at its 2004 sale in Melbourne on July 26. But it is a mark of NYSE-listed firm’s success in this collecting category that a sale that aggregates AUD$6.6 million* and sets 18 new individual artist auction records can be considered something less than successful.

At least there is a culprit to blame: the “million dollar painting” of Uluru by Rover Thomas, which, in passing in for just $675k, knocked a hole in the catalogue and cruelled the post-sale headlines for Sotheby’s aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender.