Sotheby’s bucked the dismal Aboriginal art market on Tuesday night with a tightly curated sale that played to the tough climate for contemporary art by skewing towards traditional and historically important items.
D’Lan Davidson’s 105-lot Melbourne auction grossed $1.4 million, including buyer’s premium. The $1.2 million gross hammer was still below the pre-sale estimate of $1.4 million to $2 million. But the clearance rates of 59 per cent by lot, and 67 per cent by value, according to the Australian Art Sales Digest, reflect something that has become an extreme rarity in recent times “ some works selling for more than their high estimates. (The clearance rate by value on Sotheby’s own calculation is 96 per cent; they use different methodologies).
An early rainforest shield from north Queensland went for $42,000, well above its $20,000 to $30,000 estimate. This will be good news for Theodore Bruce, which has a similar rainforest shield up for sale next Tuesday. Theodore has given its shield a $30,000 to $50,000 estimate.
Bill Stockman Tjapaltjarri’s 1973 board Untitled (ngatitjirri at Ilpitirri) went for $25,000, $5000 above its high estimate; Prince of Wales’s 2001 painting Body Marks was knocked down for $38,000, $3000 above its high estimate; and Tommy Watson’s 2009 red-hued Pukura made a $95,000 hammer, $15,000 above its high estimate, underbid by Watson’s dealer John Ioannou. (A less impressive Watson painting passed in later at $17,000).
A Mengen shield from Papua New Guinea made an $18,000 hammer, more than double its $6000 low estimate. This made a great buy of the very similar Mengen shield that sold for $8500 only one lot earlier and was only slightly more faded.
Mr Davidson, who has suffered some dire sales since taking over Sotheby’s indigenous art department in mid-2010, says the results support the strategy to move towards much smaller sales of important works.
“We’ve been very focused on consigning only the very best things that come our way, and have said no to a whole lot more things than we said yes to,” he said.
The two most important works in the sale found new homes. The cover lot, Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi’s 1972 Papunya board Big Cave Story, is suspected to have gone to the National Gallery of Australia.
Melbourne dealer Bill Nuttall, who sometimes bids for the Canberra institution, secured the piece for its low estimate of $180,000.
Ginger Riley Munduwalawala’s 1988 painting Garimala and Bulukbun also sold for its low estimate of $80,000. Riley had bought it back for his super fund for half this amount at Sotheby’s in 1999.
“The sale gave everyone a bit of hope after many tough years,” says art consultant Sophie Ullin.
“Some of the estimates were very low, but not all of them. Tribal artefacts, early desert boards, barks and interesting figures were sought after, and there was very little contemporary painting.”
With about 100 people in the room and consistent bidding on many lots, it felt like the best Aboriginal art sale for a couple of years. It was a stark contrast to Bonhams Aboriginal art auctions of last week, and tested the theory that Bonhams’ results mostly reflected the stockmarket decline.
Put together by Tim Klingender and the team that previously worked with him at Sotheby’s, Bonhams’ two Aboriginal sales, held in Sydney, were attended by only a few dozen people and took 315 lots to gross $908,001 including premium.
Their combined clearance rate was helped by its ability to sell works from Bill Nuttall’s superannuation fund at below their low estimates. Bonhams did not separate out the results for the mixed-vendor indigenous sale that immediately followed Nuttall’s but, when combined, its two Aboriginal sales cleared 65 per cent by lot and 56 per cent by value.