2 January 2005

Deal Me In: Shaun Dennison

Christie’s entered the burgeoning fray of the indigenous art market in October with a 168-lot auction in Sydney. The man plotting the strategy for the venerable French firm is tyro auction specialist, Shaun Dennison. Melbourne-based Dennison, a management consultant by trade and an art collector by passion, has only been collecting himself since 1996 – the year Emily Kame Kngwarreye died. Christie’s new Modern Aboriginal art specialist, spoke to Michael Hutak at the Paris preview of the sale in September, then by email after the sale in October.

Michael Hutak: Can you remember the first artwork you bought?

Sean Dennison: No but I remember the first show I attended, in 1996, it was a show of paintings by Emily (Kame Kngwarreye) at Lauraine Diggins, the first works in Ochre. The show was a complete sellout but the works weren’t particularly good for Emily and I immediately decided to find out more, and it just became my mission to understand this work and this market.

MH: How did you arrive at this venture?

SD: First I began collecting, then advising other people on what to collect. Then last year I met (Christie’s Australia managing director) Roger McIlroy. Roger had been keeping a watching brief on the Aboriginal market, waiting for the right conditions to enter the market. The turning point was last year’s Sotheby’s Aboriginal art auction which was incredibly successful - over $7 million in works sold. The market looked easily strong enough to handle more competition. And here we are – not forgetting three or four other auction houses have jumped in as well.

MH: How are you able to run a consulting business (Farrier Swier) and Christie’s “Modern Aboriginal Art” department at the same time?

SD: Well, you’re looking at the department – it’s all me, what you see in this catalogue is my selection and reflects my taste, these are my estimates, the lot. So it gets down to a time management issue and being self-employed there are a lot of synergies.

MH: You’ve never hung out a shingle as a dealer or advisor, what qualifies you for the job?

SD: Because I have a passionate and I would say deep knowledge gained in many different ways from being a collector. As a collector I have followed the auctions very closely and I have been advising people on buying works from the start. Dabbling in my passion got to a point where I’d had enough and wanted to do something.

MH: Have you suspended your own collecting?

SD: I only acquire works for myself through the primary market. Christie’s have a strict conflict of interest policy. I cannot buy any works in this catalogue.

MH: Having never put together a sale before, are you concerned about getting the pricing levels right first time?

SD: Auctions are pretty process-oriented things. It’s very structured. Do I have the eye for a good work? I’ve got that. Do I have an idea of what sells, I think I do. Are the estimates pegged at the right level, that’s yet to be seen. But also, there’s an abundance of material out there that people want to sell and it’s a relatively easy market to research. We’ve deliberately kept the sale modest at 168 lots to maximise the quality. I’ve looked at at least a thousand works and I have echanged an incredible amount of email.

MH: What do you mean when you define your sale as “Modern Aboriginal Art”

SD: I think it’s about time Aboriginal art was more defined in its various sectors. We’re trying to narrow the focus so ‘Modern Aboriginal art’ is works on board, paper and canvas from 1971, from Geoffrey Bardon to the modern day. It’s notable for what’s missing: bark artefacts, water colours pre-1970, so no (Albert) Namatjira or Hermannsberg artists. Also it’s a segment where some artists may not have appeared at auction before, such as Max Mansell.

MH: What is your attitude to provenance in choosing works for auction?

SD: Our policy is to only offer works whose provenance can be traced back an acknowledged Aboriginal art community, and/or by artists known to be represented by a gallery. In other words, I don’t mind if they don’t work for an art community as long as they’ve signed on with a representative or a gallery. I’m looking for relationships between artist and dealer such as Maggie Watson Napangardi and Gondwana, or Ginger Riley and Alcaston. I’m looking for an artist’s commitment to an agency because I think that’s where the top quality emerges. Our commitment is to quality and it worries me when an artist is painting for ten or 20 different sources.

MH: In the 1000 or so works you’ve sifted through for this sale have you seen any being passed off as the work others?

SD: Put it this way, I have seem some works which are either extraordinarily bad works [by name artists], or they are fakes.

MH: Why have you decided to preview in Paris and New York?

SD: It gives vendors the confidence to consign for a start. A key criteria for getting involved in this was that I take the work to the world. New York was an easier choice, there always been a market for Aboriginal art there. Paris, rather than London, I chose because of it’s access to the European market. My expectation from what I’ve seen here is that around half our sales will be overseas collectors. Although it may be hard to tell as most of the big collectors have local advisors and agents who may bid for them. Here in Paris there’s been several commitments to sales and if half of them end in sales it will have been worthwhile making the trip. We’ve had two collectors fly in from London, another is flying to New York for the preview.

MH: What collector demographic are you targeting with the sale?

SD: In Australia I’m looking to widen the market, to attract sales from non-indigenous Australian paintings to Aboriginal art. We have valued about 40 per cent of the catalogue under AUD$10k, about 7 works in the AUD$80-150k range, and only two works above estimated $150k.

With a pre-sale total estimate between $2.5-3.5 million, Christie’s Modern Aboriginal Art sale grossed $1,615,593 (includes premium & GST). Of 168 lots offered, 89 were sold, representing 53% by lot and 56 per cent by value. A respectable if modest opening. After the sale, AAC continued our interview with Dennison via email.


MH: Pleased with the result?

SD: Yes I was happy with the overall result of $1.75m (including buyer premium). Some individual results were very strong (such as $188,248 for Maggie Watson Napangardi’s Digging Stick, and Emily Kngwarreye Yam, lot 59 by Tommy Sheen).

MH: Was "Modern Aboriginal Art" the right way to go?

SD: I still think that defining Aboriginal art into various genres is important and I am likely to continue to do so. However, the next sale I may expand the genres offered.

MH: Were the Paris and New York previews worth the effort? How many sales were generated out of the previews? How active were international collectors at the sale?

SD: Given it was Christie's first stand-alone Aboriginal sale and obviously the first time viewed by Christie's overseas I am very happy with the participation from overseas bidders. Not only did overseas bidders underbid a number of paintings, but in terms of total sales about one third by number and 40% by value went overseas.

MH: How do you think you fared on setting estimates?

SD: I am generally happy. I believe the key is to build on Christie's client base rather than refine estimates.

MH: Any general comments on strategy, the frequency of sales, or the size of catalogue?

SD: I am still to finalise my view on the strategy for 2005, but I think that I had about the right number of lots (I wouldn't go above 200). One sale a year is to be offered, but as I said above, maybe we will expand the genre of Aboriginal art offered to, for instance, ‘Modern and Traditional’.

MH: Were any museums, local or international, buying or bidding?

SD: No, there was no institutional interest.


Abridged version published in Australian Art Collector

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