ATrading Places

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 31st May 2010

From the earliest days of the fledgling colony, legitimization of Australian Indigenous art has been driven by its international appeal. Overseas sales are believed to have underpinned the success of Sotheby’s fine art sales since the mid 1990’s and New York Times art critic Robert Hughes famously described Aboriginal art as the ‘last great art movement of the 20th century’. Now a decade in to the 21st, Adrian Newstead investigates the international appeal of Aboriginal art.

International interest in Aboriginal art has changed dramatically during its 200-year journey from the ethnographic to the contemporary. Balwin Spencer and Charles Mountford, who first promoted Aboriginal art to international audiences, would hardly recognize it in the starkly contrasting bark paintings and faintly resonant abstracted landscapes that predominate today. Neither would those who put together the earliest overseas collections such as Czech artist Karel Kupka, or Americans Ed Ruhe and Louis Allan, and those with even deeper pockets that followed them. Fellow American’s Donald Kahn, Richard Kelton and John Kluge gave up trying to track of the pace of change long ago.

The entire Aboriginal art market was worth less than $1 million in 1970 and greatest overseas collections of bark paintings and early Papunya boards had been assembled long before 1980 when the size of the Aboriginal art market had reached $2.5 million.

As the number privately owned galleries grew the size of the market reached $18.5 million at the end of the following decade on the back Aboriginal art’s incorporation in to mainstream Australian fine art, and the international investment boom in fine arts. International tourism had grown by 25% during the final years of the 1980’s and the introduction of Aboriginal artworks into Sotheby’s and Christies fine art catalogues over the following years served to increase its imprimatur and international cache.

The emergence of ‘star’ artists, and the specialist secondary market, saw an escalation in the prices of artworks. Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas became the first artists to achieve retail prices in excess of $10,000 making galleries selling Aboriginal art profitable for the first time. Yet intense dealer rivalry developed around the emerging Utopia and Kimberley artists creating deep enmities between those who worked in the field, galleries, and auction houses. It was only a matter of time before the most significant sector of the collecting community would change from impassioned ethnophiles, to collectors with an eye to ‘investment’.

Austrade and the Visual Arts and Crafts Board of the Australia Council convened a Visual Art Export Panel, during an era prior to Export Market Development Grants. Australian galleries participated at the Chicago International Art Fair (CINAF) and SOFA, as well as art fairs in Cologne, Dusseldorf and Madrid. The Panel supported Gabrielle Pizzi who showed in Cologne and fought for Aboriginal art to break free of being defined as ‘folk art’, Roslyn Oxley launched Tracy Moffatt’s international career, and Paul Greenaway showed indigenous artists in Madrid for the first time. Commercial presentations like these resulted in a growing number of important articles in international newspapers, including a cover story in Time Magazine.

However, other than Dreamtime, staged at the Asia Society in New York during the late 1980’s, and the exhibition Aratjarra-Art of the First Australians, which toured Germany and the UK during the mid 1990’s few institutions in Australia mounted exhibitions for overseas. Fortunately, important international art patrons including Americans Richard Kelton, and Mary Reid Brunstrom, and Dutch collector Thomas Vroom, worked privately with institutions such as the Pacific Asia Museum in Los Angeles, the Wadsworth Athenaeum in St. Louis to realise exhibitions that significantly advanced the international exposure of Aboriginal art.

In Australia itself, inflammatory differences surfaced around the way in which art was produced and the relationships that existed between artists, galleries, agents, and art centres. The media, having twigged to the interest that could be generated by public ‘scandals’ relating to the arts, exposed the careers of a number of high profile artists, their families, and dealers, to public scrutiny during the mid to late 1990’s. Foremost amongst the artists whose praxis or attribution was called in to question were Emily Kngwarreye, Kathleen Petyarre, Turkey Tolson and Clifford Possum. As the media circus, dominated by Eurocentric opinion, rolled on, confidence in Indigenous and ethnic visual art practice was seriously undermined. While Sotheby’s Tim Klingender postulated that up to 80% of the company’s Indigenous art sales were being generated by overseas buyers, In (in) 1997 Germaine Greer wrote in an internationally circulated opinion piece.’ As far as the international art market is concerned, recent Aboriginal art is a con. Our desperate haste to get the visions out of Aborigine heads and into a saleable form could be compared with the way we rip the guts out of the country to overload the market with cheap iron ore.’ London art dealer Rebecca Hossack responded by saying ‘Each time articles like this appear in the national and international press it kills the market in London stone dead’.

Throughout the 1990’s the vast majority of overseas exhibitions were organised by private galleries. Amongst the most active Australian private dealers on the international stage were Hank Ebes, Michael Hollows, Gabrielle Pizzi, Roslyn Premont, Peter Harrison, Michael Eather, and myself. Touring international exhibitions were almost exclusively confined to those curated by Djon Mundine and Wally Caruana emanating from Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Australia; and those organised and curated by anthropologist Howard Morphy and Jean Hubert Martin. These exhibitions toured to Hanover, Cape Town, St. Petersburg and Lausanne, while Aboriginal artists exhibited in Biennale’s from Venice to Johannesburg and Havana. The influence of private collectors could not be overstated. The exhibition Stories, A Journey Around Big Things with works representing 11 artists in the Holmes a Court Collection toured Hanover, Berlin and Aachen in Germany during the mid 1990’s; and from 2000 onward Spirit Country: The Gantner Myer Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Art curated by Jennifer Isaacs and others toured San Francisco, Washington and San Antonio in the USA before being shown in Melbourne, New Zealand, China and Japan.

Interest in Australia’s Indigenous art had increased exponentially in Europe having been shown regularly at European art fairs including Cologne, ARCO and Frankfurt. Several specialist Aboriginal art museums had opened and there were more than a dozen commercial galleries and consultancies committed to Aboriginal art scattered between Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, London, Berlin, San Francisco, San Diego and elsewhere.

The exponential rise in purchases by overseas collectors during the mid 1990’s was fueled by an exchange rate that saw the Australian dollar sink in value to just 48 US cents. American and European collectors continued to ‘buy up big’ as long as the exchange rate gave them as much as a 30% purchasing advantage over their Australian counterparts. The number of auction houses offering specialist Aboriginal art sales between 2004 and 2008 fed the Great Art Bubble of the early post 2000 period. New overseas blood materialized on the phones at each successive auction.

The opening of the Musee du Quay Branly in Paris was attended by many of Australia’s most prominent gallery owners, curators and collectors. The cost of incorporating the Aboriginal art had been partially paid by the Australian Government, and, during the months that followed, it appeared to do wonders for the salability of works by each of the participating artists. Record prices were achieved at auction for works by Tommy Watson, Paddy Bedford and John Mawurndjul while spectacularly no less than 8 works replaced results in Ningura Napurula’s top 10 records between 2006 and 2008. International buyers certainly contributed to many of these sales.


Between 2006 and 2008 a number of galleries overseas made important commitments to Aboriginal art and produced quality publications to accompany their exhibitions. They included the Musée d’Arts Africains, Oceaniens Amerindiens’ exhibition of art from Balgo Hills; Paysages Reves - Artists Aborigines Contemporains de Balgo Hills Australie Occidentale held at the Centre de la Ville Charite, Marseilles, France; and Spirit and Vision - Aboriginal Art for the Sammlung Essel in Austria. The Musée de France in Nice showed Peinture Aborigene Contemporaine featuring works from the collection of Marc Sordello and Francis Missana, Gallery Yapa in Paris produced the quality catalogue Le Temps du Reve, and Mazzolini Arte in Milan published Dirrmu, Dipinti Aborigeni per una Collezione with a scholarly essay by Francesco Porzio. And in Tokyo the Bridgestone Museum, purchased Aboriginal artworks for its contemporary collection for the first time. These few examples are but a snapshot of the growing interest and professionalism applied by overseas galleries to the presentation of Australian Aboriginal art.

During the same period however, a further bout of unsavory publicity followed Nicholas Rothwell’s 2006 articles in the Australian newspaper. It included a damning documentary on Britain’s Chanel 4; and, more recently, the portrayal of an avaricious art dealer in the internationally acclaimed film Sampson and Delilah. In response Rebecca Hossack’s opinion hardened. ‘The English’, she noted ‘are inherently decent people who will not buy products they think are morally suspect. The market for Aboriginal art in Britain has been all but destroyed’. For more than 2 decades Hossack has championed Aboriginal art with her annual 3 month Songlines exhibition progam. Disappointingly, her recent exhibitions for Jean Baptiste Apuatimi and Faith Thompson have both failed to sell, despite critical acclaim. She will participate in 18 international art fairs this year and show Aboriginal art at none of them. Despite the presence of Stephane Jacob in Paris and Mortisa Esmaili’s Gallerie Yapa, Aboriginal galleries in Rome, Amsterdam, Vienna , San Francisco and San Diego have all closed. The near parity of the Australian and US dollars have not helped Australian exports. While 6 auctions have been held in Paris during the past 3 years none have been able to sell artworks for more than 10,000 euro, barely an entry point to works of quality here in Australia. Meanwhile Jacob, the long-time champion of Aboriginal art in Paris, continues to operate from his mother’s former bedroom.

For money, prestige and quality, no Aboriginal art exhibition previously held overseas could match the grand scale and import of the internationally significant solo exhibition Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye mounted by the National Museum of Australia for the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and the National Art Centre, Tokyo in 2008. In its sweeping grandeur this first solo retrospective seamlessly pulled the eight magnificent galleries in the ultra modern Tokyo gallery designed by Kishô Kurokawa together into a breathtaking tour de force, demonstrating Emily’s unparalleled energy and vision. The exhibition in that venue quite literally had Japanese visitors sitting stunned, with tears welling in their eyes. This was no ordinary Aboriginal art exhibition. It was a solo show by an artist of international stature. Included amongst the Australian private collectors who attended the opening and were Janet Holmes a Court, Collin and Elizabeth Laverty, Don and Janet Holt, Ann Lewis, Hank Ebes, Fred Torres and Christopher Hodges. The curators, Margo Neale and Tatehata Akira, chose paintings from the finest public and private collections around the world and, in doing so, they created an exhibition on walls up to 8 metres in height that presented Emily Kngwarreye as one of the greatest contemporary artists of the 20th century.

More than 100,000 visitors attended the exhibition during its three months in Japan. To coincide with the Tokyo exhibition my own Coo-ee Gallery, with assistance from The Department of Foreign Affairs and Austrade, curated and staged the commercial exhibition ‘Emily Kngwarreye and her Legacy’ at the Hillside Terrace Gallery in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district. Featuring major secondary market works by Emily drawn from a number of important collections the exhibition also included works by Gloria and Kathleen Petyarre, Abie Loy Kemarre and the Ngal sisters, Poly, Kathleen and Angelina. The selling exhibition sought to capitalise on the interest generated by a museum event that was promoted widely by its sponsors Yomiyuri Shimbun through newspaper articles and advertising in the media, on street hoardings and on public transport. It comprised of 60 individual works worth $AUD2 million but generated just $350,000 in sales. Despite all of the publicity, not one single artwork sold to a Japanese client. The buyers were US hedge fund managers, European bankers and the CEO of an international recruitment agency. Quite clearly the international interest in purchasing Aboriginal art is not in Asia!

Today art centres alone turnover in excess of $60 million annually in fine art. The sheer number of independent dealers, the multiplier effects of the marketing chain, and the relatively healthy secondary market make a $150 million estimate of current Indigenous fine art production appear conservative. With the international financial crisis almost certain to continue until 2012 overseas sales of Aboriginal art are destined to remain firmly focused on Europe and the USA. Despite the synergistic benefits to trade and tourism engendered by travelling overseas exhibitions it is unlikely that the Australian government will increase its support given the tremendous costs involved. This will remain primarily in the domain of private entrepreneurs.

While promising signs have emerged after recent art fairs in the middle-east and one-off events elsewhere, the vast majority of actual sales will continue to be ‘hidden export’; that is those being generated by high-end cultural tourism to Australia. Despite the uninformed market hype, high value Aboriginal art currently sells to a very small number of sophisticated collectors living in dozens of isolated overseas markets. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that most galleries in Australia did not purchase their first computers until the mid 1990’s. At that time the most effective means of communication was by fax and telephony. Email barely existed, and no one could have imagined the speed and ease of communication that we take for granted today. The real key to future overseas sales lies in the hands of those businesses that prove capable of harnessing the internet, and state-of-the-art web technology, in order to keep in touch with, and sell art to, a culturally literate, yet widely geographically dispersed, clientele.

*This article originally appeared in the Art Market Report (Issue 35 Second Quarter 2010)

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

AIAM Rank 1 AIAM Rating 30.8759

Tommy (Yannima) Watson

AIAM Rank 26 AIAM Rating 5.1946

Kathleen Petyarre

AIAM Rank 30 AIAM Rating 4.8113
Waltitjatta, 2006 by Tommy (Yannima) Watson
#374103
Waltitjatta, 2006
Tommy (Yannima) Watson 13

204 x 251 cm
#374103