Born c.1938 at Belyuen (Dellisaville), a small community on the far side of Darwin Harbour, Midpul, more familiarly known as Prince of Wales, was a custodian and leader of Larakia ceremonies and dances, a leading didgeridoo player, and practiced art as ceremonial body painting for much of his life. His father, Imabul, was also known as King George and this, perhaps as much as the fact that Midpul danced for Queen Elizabeth during a royal trip to Australia in the 1960's, resulted in his familiar ‘English’ name. ‘Prince’ grew up with his mother’s people, the Wadgigiyn, on the Cox Peninsula across the harbour from Darwin, and spent much of his adult life living with other Dangalaba clan members at the beach camp at Cullen (Kahlin) Bay, now an expensive marina development. Despite suffering a stroke prior to gaining great recognition as an artist, he continued his lifelong practice and passion for painting and became recognized as the first contemporary Aboriginal artist from the Larakia region. His work is a unique rendering on to canvas of the traditional body designs used in Danggalaba ceremonies. The respect afforded to Midpul by younger members of the Danggalaba tribe was such that, despite the specific sacred cultural content of his art, no challenge was mounted when he began to produce his canvasses. As the last ‘full’ elder of the tribe, he spoke about his responsibility to reveal this sacred visual element of his culture to the mainstream. Given the hesitation from the earliest days of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement to disclose sacred symbols to the public, his authority may have derived from the fact that there were simply no remaining elders alive to challenge him. Regardless, when his paintings - mostly entitled ‘Body Marks’ – came to public prominence in 2001, his work gained an immediate reputation as the up and coming art de jour of modern minimalism. It was the second year that ‘Prince’ had won the Telstra Aboriginal Art award in the General Painting Category (his previous success, in 1996, came and went with far less attention). Prince of Wales, had works included in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award five times, held his first solo exhibition at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in 1997, and went on to stage another four at the Karen Brown Gallery in Darwin and the Hogarth Gallery in Sydney. His death came at a time when his artistic career was only really beginning to flourish and commercial interest had begun translating into real sales. It is not difficult to see why his paintings were so quickly taken up by the art buying public, once they did come into prominence. The bold colours, broad dots and domino-like lines fit a very contemporary aesthetic. Unfortunately, this strong commercial interest only manifested at the end of his life and so much of his creative output was on a small scale, executed on cardboard scraps, paper and found objects. The artistic recognition that came with the Telstra Aboriginal Art award and a realisation of the commercial value of his work saw ‘Prince’ paint large-scale canvases only toward the end of his career. At this time his position as ‘the last ‘full-blooded’ Larakia man’ was a heritage that he strongly identified with, although his relationship to the title was ambivalent and, at times, a heavy burden. He died on the 27th December 2002 having created a significant art legacy and laying the foundations for the emergence of a contemporary Larakia Art Movement. His work was exhibited posthumously in 2003, in the group exhibition ‘Emerge’ at the Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory, Darwin.
Prince of Wales has proven to be a most successful artist in the secondary market since he first appeared at auction in 2003. Of 72 works offered all but 16 have sold. A far higher percentage of these have sold for amounts above the high estimate compared to average results across all artists at auction.
Although he began painting as early as 1994, his most successful works were produced from 1998 onward. Fifteen have sold for more than $25,000, of which eight were sold between 2012 and 2015. Nevertheless, his results are skewed by the spectacular $156,000 paid for Body Marks 2001, at Sotheby’s in July 2007 (Lot 94), which was by far and away the artist’s most impressive result to date.
All of the paintings that occupy his top ten results were created between 1998 and 2002, the year he passed away. Prince of Wales's paintings rose in value on both the primary and secondary markets immediately following his winning the Telstra general painting award in 2001; his late career works, particularly those painted on a large scale, have commanded escalating prices since that time. The record price more than doubled the high estimate of $70,000 at Sotheby’s July sale (Lot 94) despite this having been the highest presale estimate ever placed on one of his works prior to 2018 when his second highest price was was achieved in Sotheby's March London sale. That major painting measuring 187 x 146 cm was estimated at GBP40,000 - 50,000 and sold at the high estimate (equivalent to $AUD88,615).
Prince's third highest record ($61,000) was set at the Laverty auction at Bonham's in 2013. His fourth was far more conservative for a work measuring 223 x 132 cm. Body Marks 1999 sold in 2011 at Deutscher and Hackett's June sale (Lot 28). It was a reversed version of the work that won him the general painting prize in the 2001 Telstra Award. White dots jump out against a dark blue background. The colours are deep, and subtle and it is only by looking closer into the depth of the blue that black dots, layered on the background, become apparent. There is a sense of unity and harmony in both paintings, which is a hallmark of the best of this artist’s works.
2008 was not a good year for the artist at auction, with two works carrying estimates of $20,000-30,000 in Sotheby’s October sale failing to attract buyers (Lots 120 and 121). Of three paintings on offer that year only the small 55 x 55 cm. Body Marks 1999 sold in its estimated mid range at Joel Fine Art (Lot 200). With such small numbers presented at auction, this resulted in his overall clearance rate dropping from 91% to 84%. It resulted in his falling from 42nd to 46th ranked artist in the history of the movement. In 2012 seven of the eight works on offer sold with three paintings entering his top ten results at 3rd 6th and 7th places in his career standings. This saw his career success rate rise to 88% during a year in which he was the 14th most successful artist. 2015 was his best year for some time. Three works entered his top ten results at 7th, 8th and 9th. Nothing notable occured thereafter until 2019 when a work measuring 160 x 120 cm entered his top then results having sold for $AUD32,000 at Sotheby's in New York.
There is no doubt that major paintings by this artist, whose career was cut short just as his success had ignited intense interest in his art, will increasingly attract interest from informed collectors, with consequent growing prices. His two highest records are held by works that are by far the largest of his paintings ever presented for sale and this can be seen as part of a trend by serious collectors to pay a premium for important works that are strictly limited in availability. Works by Prince of Wales, despite their deep cultural significance, fit perfectly into the contemporary aesthetic. Expect them to escalate in value steadily thereby rewarding their collectors both visually and financially.