Brimful of confidence D & H offered 243 works worth $2.7-$3.6 million in its first Aboriginal art sale for 2011. Industry observers have been hoping that this sale (the first of three panned by the major auction houses during May/June) would indicate a warming market, after the decline post 2007. Fifteen works worth $1.45 million* carried low estimates in excess of $50,000 with 8 over $100,000. Yet only 5 of these major works sold for a total of $499,200 including buyers premium. By night’s end the sale had generated just 44% of the $2.7 million low estimate, or $1,247,556 including buyers premium.
The failures included two spectacular early Papunya boards by Anatjari No. III Tjakamarra and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri. Of these artists Anatjari was most successful of all Aboriginal artists during 2010, with 5 works sold of 5 offered at an average price of $110,380. Namarari, has accumulated auction sales of $3.23 million and is still the movement’s 10th most successful artist of all time. However, his stocks have been steadily declining, and he did not even appear amongst the 200 best performers during 2010. His 1994 canvas Marnpi (Lot 19) was also unsuccessful on the night.
Other notable failures were all 3 major works by Jirrawun’s Paddy Bedford; all of a Ginger Riley Mundawalawala’s works including his large canvas (lot 16); and the attractive small work by Melville Island Tiwi artist Kitty Kantilla (Lot 17). However many of these works carried wildly optimistic estimates and, because of this, were always likely to fail. The Kantilla is a perfect case in point. Estimated at $50,000 to $60,000, its real worth based on successful sales during the past 5 years is $25,000-30,000.
It was, however, not all bad news. As predicted the sale got off to a flying start when the delightful 168 x 11.5 work by Daniel Walbidi (Lot 1) conservatively estimated at $12,000 to $18,000 sold for $22,800. Emily Kngwarreye’s 164 x 228 cm untitled 1992 painting (Lot 12) was the most successful lot on the night. Carrying superb provenance (it was included in the artists Queensland Art Gallery retrospective, and her national Museum of Australia solo exhibition which toured Japan) this work exceeded its presale estimate of $120,000- 150,000 selling for $204,000, the artist’s 10th highest auction result on record. However these were the only two works that sold above their high estimate. The subsequent work by Kngwarreye (Lot 13) with the same provenance failed to attract any bidders.
Kngwarreye’s earliest, and most accomplished work in this sale (Lot 26), attracted perverse attention in the room, having initially failed to reach its reserve. Shortly thereafter, former Sotheby’s specialist Tim Klingender approached the auctioneer Anita Archer with an offer and, following a flurry of phone activity, she announced that the painting had been purchased for a hammer price of just $80,000, or $96,000 including BP. It was a clever move. Not only did Klingender, who is now associated with Bonham’s, purchase a fabulous work at less than half its real value, he also clearly signaled his ability to find those ‘well healed’ clients that seem to elude D & H specialist Crispin Gutteridge (his former assistant at Sotheby’s).
Another good result on the night was the price achieved for the dark and somber Body Marks 1999 by Larakiya artist Prince of Wales. All 5 works by this artist sold, with this major painting (Lot 28) achieving $57,600.
However Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s stunning Two Boys at Wilkinkarra 1992 sold for just $43,200 while carrying an estimate of $40,000-60,000. The painting sold previously at Sotheby’s in 2002 for $79,812 (the artist’s highest ever result at sale). This result, along with the price paid by Klinginder for Emily Knwarreye’s painting (lot 26) were the strongest indicators in this sale of the current state of the market.
The sale provided a strong indication of the interest in paintings and artifacts on a regional and stylistic basis. Barks and artifacts achieved an almost identical sale rate by volume (58-64%) as the overall sale itself. However of 17 works from Balgo Hills only 5 sold, while only 10 of 27 paintings in the East Kimberley style sold on the night.
The most telling statistic of all should shake all of those collectors who slavishly adhere to the myth that Papunya works represent the height of collectability. D & H, Sotheby’s, and Bonham’s, all only offer works that carry Papunya Tula provenance. Yet other than the very finest paintings, these works, which have always appeared muted and formulaic compared to commissioned works by these same artists, consistently fail at auction. Only 10 of the 25 the Papunya paintings in this sale found buyers, including only 8 of the 20 created post 1975.
The lesson here is simple. Quality works, other than absolute one-off masterpieces, will only continue to sell if vendors and auction specialists are prepared to adjust their estimates and reserves down, in line with market expectations. In my opinion this requires a cut roughly in line with the hike in the Ausi dollar exchange rate. (i.e no less than 30% on 2002-2007 values). Had Gutteridge been this severe with his vendors there is every reason to believe, given the quality of the offering, that his clearance by volume could have been as high as 75-80%. As it was he achieved a respectable, but sobering, 57%.
*on low estimates