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Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri

Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri

1935 - 1987

Lowry was one of the foundation members of the Papunya Tula painting group to work with Geoffrey Bardon. He does not, however, appear as a profiled artist amongst those discussed in the ‘lives of the artist’ chapter in Bardon’s seminal book Papunya: A Place Made after a Story. Vivien Johnson speculated in her book 'The lives of Papunya Tula Atists' (2008: 115) that this may be due to the fact that 'Tommy No. 4 (Tjtjuwinya) Tjapaltjarri, whom Geoffrey Bardon described as a young man who occasionally painted with the group, was the same man as Tommy Lowry.' Johnson herself pays Lowry more attention, perhaps due to the stellar sale of Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya 1984 for $576,000 at auction during the year immediately preceding her important publication. Tommy came from Patjarr country in the Clutterbuck Hills. He was connected, in a rather intricate web to a number of other Papunya artists, including his older brother, Dr George and wife Carol Nampitjinpa, who began painting for Papunya in 2002.  His early paintings feature classic Tingari iconography in earthy ochre tones such as Untitled - Ceremonial Design 1971. However, his major works at auction were created late in his life, close to his passing in the late 1980s. His most acclaimed work Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya 1984 has become emblematic since its inclusion in the groundbreaking 1988 exhibition Dreamings, The art of Aboriginal Australia, curated by the South Australian Museum for the Asia Society in New York. The exhibition subsequently toured venues through the United States and Australia. The painting relates to a creation story associated with country south-west of Kintore. Two traditional healers (ngangkaris) also referred to as Wati Kutjarra travelled through the area and sat chewing native tobacco. It was however so strong that they lay down and died sprawled on their backs with their legs wide apart on the sand. Their bodies began to urinate and so great was the flow that the ground became saturated and a great salt lake was formed. Today the lake is called Kumpurkurra (bad urine). Once the lake formed the men came back to life and travelled throughout the area having further adventures. Tommy Lowry began his artistic career carving wooden implements and traditional weapons. Though only an occasional painter for Papunya Tula, he quickly insinuated himself and became notable as a highly talented artist with an individual style. Works created during the early 1970s are extremely rare, however, and only the occasional piece from later in his career appears at sale, making them highly desirable and collectable.

Until the 24th of July 2007 Tommy Lowry's auction results had him languishing well behind his contemporaries amongst the early Papunya painters. The repeated failure of two 1972 boards, both of which deserved a better fate, was clearly out of sync with market results for other artists who had worked with Geoff Bardon. Old Man's Story, a work from the 44th consignment to the Stuart Art Centre, had been offered at Sotheby's with a presale estimate of $20,000 - 30,000 in July 2005. Four years later it was offered again with a reduced estimate of just $10,000-15,000. It failed to attract a buyer on both occasions. A similar fate beset Women's Dreaming 1972, a lovely, iconic early board that first failed when offered at Christie's in 1998, carrying an estimate of $10,000-12,000 and passed in again eight years later carrying Sotheby's estimate of $40,000 - 60,000. Nevertheless, this greatly increased valuation reflected a reassessment of the market value of the artist’s works by Sotheby's. The following year, they placed a whopping  $400,000 - 600,000 estimate on his monumental painting with impeccable provenance. When Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya 1984 sold for $576,000 at Sotheby’s in 2007 (Lot 51), it propelled Lowry from relative market obscurity to a place within the top 20 of the AIAM top 100. The work had featured in the Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000 and attracted bidding from a private New York-based collector, rather than an Australian public institution. The price achieved was among the top ten results ever achieved for an Indigenous artwork, as well as being more than ten times the artist's previous market record.  In June 2008 Joel Fine Art sold another late-career work by Lowry entitled Tingari at Tarkulnga 1987 , measuring 160 x 214 cm, for $32,940 (against a presale estimate of $15,000-$20,000). Nevertheless, the appearance of works by this artist at auction are extremely rare. Tommy Lowry was an artist capable of greatness who painted a relatively small number of spare, iconic boards in the early 1970s, as well as a large number of fairly generic Pintupi men's paintings toward the end of his life in the late 1980s. His success rate at auction is very healthy, and, following the renown he has achieved for his top-selling painting, it is unlikely that works will appear again in the future without arousing intense collector interest.

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