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Charlie Numbulmoore

Charlie Numbulmoore

1907 - 1971

Charlie Numbulmoore lived for many years on Gibb River Station in the Central Kimberley where anthropologist Ian Crawford first recorded him repainting Wandjina figures in a Mamadai cave in the 1960’s. The few biographical details of Numbulmoore’s life that exist are traced solely through his encounters with those anthropologists who collected his work. Following Crawford’s initial encounter, Helen Groger collected the artist’s work on behalf of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in 1970, the same year that collector and grazier Tom McCourt purchased a number of paintings on bark, plywood, and cardboard. In his journal McCourt recollected Numbulmoore as 'the last of the old people here… who has that certain something that impresses you… when I was in Charlies camp, I bought several paintings he had in his hut from him… although his work is childlike, it has the primitive look of paintings seen under the rock hangings out in the bush' (cited in Sotheby’s 2003: 10). The Wandjina, exclusive to areas of the Kimberley, are said to have lain down in a cave and turned into a painting after their time on the earth. The Worrorra, Ngarinyin, and Woonambal clans of the Kimberley are responsible for maintaining the remnants of these spirit ancestors. Numbulmoore’s paintings show a unique conception of the Wandjina, characterised by large round black eyes fringed with short delicate lashes. The centre of the chest features a solid black, or occasionally red, oval said to depict the sternum, or heart, or a pearl shell pendant representing its spiritual essence. The almost circular head is surrounded by a very regular, tripartite halo or headdress representing hair, clouds, and lightning. Unusual in these works is the inclusion of a mouth and a long narrow parallel-sided nose, flared at the very tip with nostrils. After retouching a Wandjina near Mamadai Charlie stated 'I made you very good now…you must be very glad because I made yours eyes like new. That eye you know, like this my eye… I made them new for you people. My eye has life and your eye has life too, because I made it new … don’t try bringing rain, my wife might drown with the rain' (cited in Ryan 1993). The reference to the Wandjina’s power over the rains is particularly pertinent for Numbulmoore. The inclusion of a mouth is distinctive of his work as this is rare in Wandjna depictions. That he does so illustrates how individual interpretations of Wandjina are unique to each clan. Their more common absence is most often attributed to a belief that painting a mouth on the Wandjina’s face would bring perpetual rain. It has been suggested that Wandjina paintings on bark were first produced for trade and exchange with missionaries travelling by lugger along the coastline prior to mid 1970's. The Worrorra, Ngarinyin, and Woonambal artists did not possess the technical know how commonly found in Arnhem Land. For this reason their own barks were 'usually poorly prepared, the often knotty surfaces left irregular, and the pigments, applied without fixatives' (Ryan 1993: 15). Few of these pre 1970's examples survive. However, Charlie Numbulmoore’s paintings are a rare exception to this, as along with bark, he employed unusual, but more durable surfaces, such as slate, hard wood coolamons, or even cardboard. Notably images of the Wandjina created on bark, canvas or slate were viewed by artists like Numbulmoore as purely reproductions of the ‘real’ Wandjina’s adorning the cave walls at their most important Dreaming sites. Their primary artistic inspiration and purpose lay in their responsibility to maintain the ancestral beings, by repainting them and ‘keeping them strong’. The great strength of Charlie Numbulmoore’s artistic legacy is that he was able to convey the aesthetic and spiritual power of the Wandjina undiminished through a range of portable media that survive to this day.  

Charlie Numbulmoore’s works are rare and have a primitive numinous appeal. His paintings have appeared at auction only 35 times and, in what is extremely rare in Aboriginal art sales, only six have been passed in with all but two of his ten highest results exceeding their high estimates. Amongst those works offered more than once, was a 62 x 38.5 cm bark, which just exceeded its top estimate of $30,000 at Sotheby’s in 2000 and four years later sold for  $49,850 showing an increase of $14,200. Two Spotted Wandjina c.1965 has appeared three times. This 78 x 60 cm work executed in earth pigments on cardboard achieved a price of $23,500 against a presale estimate of $18,000-25,000 when it first appeared for sale in Deutscher~Menzies in May 2000 (Lot 30). Three years later it reappeared at Lawson Menzies October 2003 sale with a slightly higher estimate of $25,000-35,000 and reached $35,250 (Lot 33). In a result that reflects Sotheby’s preference for ethnographic works, this painting sold for $72,000 when re-offered in July 2007 against a presale estimate of $40,000-50,000 (Lot 30). Only a work on slate, sold by Sotheby's in 2002 for $22,800 cost its owner when resold in 2012 through Bonham's for $18,300. Still, the pleasure derived from living with it should have more than compensated.  In 2018 a bark that originally failed to sell through Leonard Joel in September 2015 when estimated at $12,000 - $18,000, was pushed by Sotheby's in London at GBP25,000 - 35,000 and failed once more. His highest price is $228,000, paid for an unusually large work measuring 161 x 80 cm at Sotheby’s in July 2007 (Lot 28). During 2006-07 no less than four works exceeded his previous record of $71,000 paid for a painted coolamon in Sotheby’s July 2005 auction. Since 2000 Numbulmorre has fetched high sums, often outstripping the estimates set by auction houses by up to three times. Moreover, there is a high degree of acceptance of the eclectic array of surface on which his images are painted with works on cardboard, slate, plywood, bark, and painted coollamons all fetching high prices. These staggering prices paid for works that only recently would have been considered artefacts or ethnographic curiosities attest to a fascination engendered by the Wandjina image itself. In Numbulmoore’s case, the use of his image on the cover of Images of Power, Aboriginal Art from The Kimberley, published by the National Gallery of Victoria, has only added to his status as one of the most important exponents of this art. Though Charlie Numbulmoore’s barks predate Alec Mingelmanganu’s canvases by up to a decade, Numbulmoore’s results rank just behind Mingelmanganu on the secondary market before the low numbers offered are taken in to account. Works by both of these artists are now firmly established as blue-chip investments and will become increasingly difficult to obtain. The $228,000 record price paid for Numbulmoore’s Wandjina image in Sotheby’s 2007 sale  just eclipsed his record of the previous year. These results were more than three times his record set only a year earlier, and just barely below the record sale of a Wandjina bark, by Alec Mingelmanganu at Sotheby’s in June 2002. That only four have failed at auction is testament to both the scarcity and desirability of Numbulmoore’s work. Such a result at auction is practically unheard of and all the more unusual because of the high value of his lowest sales record at $15,600. It is indicative that in 2015 only one work appeared for sale. It was offered in Sotheby's sale of the Thomas Vroom collection in London. The bark was far from his best and badly damaged, yet it achieved one of Numbulmoore's highest results, selling for GBP equivalent of $AUD34,920. With works of such uniformly superb quality there is little risk of depreciation. Numbulmoore’s works are rare, with only ten being offered for sale since 2007; they will always be strongly contested when they appear at sale. While they may seem rich pickings, I believe that his paintings are still undervalued and collectors should expect to see them continue to surge in value.  

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