Declan Apuatimi was born at Iminulapi in the north west of Bathurst Island, 100 km north of Darwin, and spent most of his life in the island’s township, Nguiu. Though this was his home as a grown man, his actual country, inherited from his father, was Munupi on the north west coast of Melville Island, the second of the two Tiwi islands. The Tiwi people are culturally distinct from mainland Aborigines and were left largely outside the main sphere of European colonization until the arrival of Catholic missionaries in 1911. In the 1930's Japanese, Malay and Filipino pearling boats made frequent visits to the Islands and, as a young man, Declan worked on a number of them in return for rations. As Margie West recounts, Declan was ‘a salt-water person with a deep love of the sea and fishing. The pearling era was one of his fondest memories‘. With the onset of World War II the pearling era came to an abrupt end and Declan was relocated to a RAAF army base in Darwin. He did not return to Bathurst Island until the war ended. In 1956 he married Jeanne Baptiste with whom he had ten children of whom only six survived. So profound was their loss that in each Pukumani ceremony thereafter Declan danced in memory of his lost children. The Pukumani and Kurlama ceremonies lie at the heart of Tiwi culture, and involve elaborate preparations. The Kurlama is an increase and fertility ceremony during which poisonous yams are made edible. The Pukumani is a funereal ceremony during which elaborate poles are carved, decorated and erected to become the focus of dancing and singing. Intricate designs adorn the face and body of the performers, matching the designs of the poles, which though open to individual interpretation, became the basis of Declan Apuatimi’s artistic output. As a boy he had learnt how to weave fine ceremonial armlets, carve delicate barbed ceremonial spears, fluted clubs, and the burial posts for Pukumani ceremony. He developed a particular affiliation to working in wood, which coincidently was his matrilineal clan totem. Declan did not produce carvings for sale, however, until the late 1950's, under the encouragement of Father John Cosgrove. The market for these objects, consisting of anthropologists, museums, art galleries, and occasional tourists, remained limited however. It wasn’t until the 1960's, under the influence of the new Father, John Fallon, that production increased for an outside market. Burial posts, once shaped by selective burning over coals and mussel shell scrapers, then decorated with striking arrangements of dots and cross-hatching, took on greater figurative form, with the replacement of the stone axe for metal tools. During the 1970's Declan consolidated his artistic career and technique following the establishment of Tiwi Pima Art, a community based body responsible for marketing traditional art and craft of the Tiwi, which opened in 1972. Declan became one of its most prolific artists and his carvings, mostly in ironwood, were characterized as solid figures with panels of geometric designs and staring almond eyes. He was also the first to begin painting three tiered faces on top of each other within one post. While some of his earlier carvings tended towards somber ochre tones, the new work was of a much brighter spectrum, with great care taken to ensure that each pigment remained distinct and pure. Though carving was by far his most preferred medium, Declan continued to produce other artifacts, as well as painting his ceremonial designs onto bark. Declan Apuatimi’s pioneering sculpture played a significant role in establishing Tiwi art in the market during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. In 1984 craft adviser Mick Reid collected his work for the first ever Tiwi one-man exhibition, which was purchased in its entirety by Lord Alistair McAlpine. Two years after his death he was honoured with a solo retrospective touring exhibition Declan- A Tiwi Artist, curated by the Araluen Art Centre in Alice Springs.
Considering the number of stunning records for sculptural works created by some Arnhem Land artists during the last five years Declan Apuatimi’s historic significance has not been matched by equally significant results on the secondary market.
His record price was set in July 2003 for a carved Pelican c.1968 from the Rothmans of Pall Mall Collection, which sold for $13,200, though estimated by Sotheby's at just $3,000-5,000 (Lot 247). It more than doubled his previous record set a year earlier when Female Figure c.1975 sold for a still respectable $6,000. Yet Sotheby’s have achieved some truly remarkable prices for sculptural pieces in recent years including the massive $60,000 for Tiwi artist Enraeld Djulabinyanna Munkara’s carved ironwood sculpture Purukapali c.1955 in 2006. While Enraeld was a far less well known artist than Declan, having passed away 15 years earlier, the climate surrounding very early Tiwi carvings is hot, no doubt due in part to the ethnographic appeal of works made prior to the existence of a real market for sculpture. In 2010 Sotheby’s offered a 157 cm high, yet aesthetically stilted depiction of Bima (lot 33) at $30,000- 50,000 which, unsurprisingly, failed to sell. Declan may well have been an active carver prior to the 1960’s but none of his sculptures made for ceremonies have survived, or if they have they have, they have not appeared for sale on the secondary market. Pelican c.1968 the earliest sculpture to date was, by the way, created in the same year as renowned Central Arnhem Land artist David Malangi carved Gurrmirringu's Wife, which sold for $56,900 at Sotheby’s in 2006. Though undoubtedly this is a magnificent and rare example of Malangi’s work, it is nonetheless worth noting that Declan’s works by comparison would seem to be greatly undervalued.
His second highest price was achieved in Sotheby’s November 2007 sale for the only work by the artist to appear that year. The undated carving of Purukuparli estimated at $6,000-8,000 sold for $12,000 (Lot 118).
Though primarily renowned as a sculptor, his bark paintings are of significant beauty and delicacy. They are generally small, such as Body Painting, c.1980, which measured 24.5 x 49 cm and sold for just $1,440 at Lawson~Menzies in May 2005 (Lot 289). However larger examples, though rare, do exist and attract good prices. Crocodile, c.1978, measuring 158 x 95 cm achieved $12,000 at Lawson~Menzies in November 2005 while carrying a presale estimate of $7,000-9,000 (Lot 1). Though a general upward trend can be detected with Apuatimi’s bark prices the vast size variation makes this difficult to quantify. As long ago as 1996 a historic untitled 1954 bark from the Margaret Carnegie collection, measuring 40 x 60 cm sold for just $633. If one considers the soaring prices of other early Tiwi barks such as Deaf Tommy Mungatopi’s Coral 1968 the case for a reappraisal of Declan’s paintings becomes evident.
It would be inaccurate however to characterise Declan’s results on the secondary market as entirely disappointing. Of six paintings offered five have sold for an average of $3,823, while 25 of 31 sculptures and artifacts have achieved an average price of $4,182. His highest grossing year by far was in 2005 when nine works sold of 11 offered. This appears as a complete anomaly in his records with the highest number of works offered in any other year being the four in 1997 and again in 2009, all of which sold. No other year has had more than three works for sale at auction. He has a significant number of reasonably high results for his figurative sculptures, which often sell around the $5,000 mark at auction. Various artifacts also occasionally appear and fetch prices in line with high quality artifacts from across the Far North.
Declan Apuatimi was the most revered of the artists who began working with Tiwi Pima Art in the 1970’s and his distinctive works hold pride of place in most of the good collections that include Arnhem Land and Tiwi art. Buyers should keep a close eye on any of his works that come up for sale as no more than one or two are likely to appear each year. That four appeared in 2009 was unusual. They all fetched good prices, with two works taking out fourth and ninth place on record. This clearly demonstrates that a number of collectors are already aware that good works appear rarely. Well-executed pieces in good condition are bound to increase in value and prove to be a very a worthwhile addition to any fine collection.