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Aboriginal Art Rebounds, Sets Records at Sotheby’s Australia

Sotheby’s auction of “Important Aboriginal Art” in its packed saleroom in Melbourne on July 24 set an auction record for both an Australian Aboriginal artwork and for an Aboriginal art sale.

MELBOURNE—Sotheby’s auction of “Important Aboriginal Art” in its packed saleroom in Melbourne on July 24 set an auction record for both an Australian Aboriginal artwork and for an Aboriginal art sale.

The sale scored 20 new artists’ records and also reversed Sotheby’s declining totals in the face of aggressive new player Lawson-Menzies. The industry’s percentages sold also returned to a more respectable 70 percent level. These formerly had been hovering near the the 60-percent-sold mark (ANL, 9/5/06).

The Sotheby’s sale was 84.8 percent sold by value and 73.6 percent sold by lot, with 209 of the 264 lots offered finding buyers. This compared favorably with Sotheby’s tenth-anniversary Aboriginal art sale a year ago, which cleared 62 percent by lot, 70 percent by value and grossed A$3.9 million ($2.97 million) against an estimate of A$5 million. The strength of the auction stemmed largely from the sale of Warlugulong, 1977, a large 61⁄2-by-11-foot painting in polymer on canvas by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (circa 1932-2002). The painting sold for A$2.4 million ($2.1 million), just below its A$2.5 million high estimate, accounting for more than a quarter of the A$8.2 million ($7.25 million) grossed by the sale (estimate: A$6.92/9.97 million).

The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, which bought the work through Melbourne dealer Bill Nuttall bidding in the room, was the most likely contender for the work as four of the five paintings in the “Warlugulong” cycle—considered the artist’s most important—are already in major collections, including those of the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and the Richard Kelton Foundation, Los Angeles, which has two of them.

U.S. collectors traditionally have been dominant forces in the market for important Aboriginal paintings, but have scaled back their collecting in recent years owing to a tightening of grants-of-export permits, designed to protect Australia’s heritage.

The painting had been purchased by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia for A$1,200 ($1,300) shortly after it was painted and placed in the company’s Melbourne office. The sale was the second this year at which a new auction price for an Aboriginal painting was established.

New artists’ records were set for Charlie Numbulmoore at A$228,000 ($201,700), against a previous A$216,000; Naata Nungurrayi at A$216,000 ($191,000), against A$153,250; the amusing name Prince of Wales (Midpul) at A$156,000 ($138,000), against A$35,000; and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri at A$96,000 ($84,900), against A$58,998.

The sum of A$384,000, or $340,000 (estimate: A$300,000/500,000), was given for Gordon Bennett’s “urban Aboriginal artwork” Possession Island, 1991, again by a public institution. The send-up group portrait of explorer Captain James Cook taking possession of Australia from the Aborigines went to the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales for hanging in the Museum of Sydney, which is administered by the trust.

The previous record total for any Aboriginal art auction was A$7.02 million ($4.6 million) for a sale held by Sotheby’s in July 2003.

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