Acclaimed as a cultural leader and the seminal figure in establishing the East Kimberley School, Rover Thomas is, according to almost every empirical measure, the most influential Aboriginal artist in the history of this movement. Yet, had he become an artist in his Walmatjarri-Kukaja traditional country, near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, his art would have doubtlessly developed along completely different lines, assuming he’d had the opportunity to paint at all. So remote was his birthplace that, had he not spent a lifetime of travel and finally settled in Gidja tribal country at Turkey Creek, hundreds of kilometres to the north, he would most likely have been drawn to the Warlayiriti artist’s cooperative at Balgo Hills when it was established in mid-1987. The Kukaja artists of Balgo Hills have much closer aesthetic ties to the Pintupi painters of Kintore and Kiwirrkurra in their use of representational symbols, such as circles, u-shapes and dotting drawn from low relief ceremonial ground sculpture than the Gija, whose primary influence is rock art and ceremonial body painting designs. Although he occasionally included figurative elements and topographical profiles in his paintings, Rover’s work is more familiarly characterized by an aerial perspective in common with Central and Western desert art. His most contemplative and sombre works draw the viewer into spacious planes of painterly applied and textured ochre. White or black dots serve only to create emphasis or to draw the eye along pathways of time and movement, following the forms of the land in which important events are encoded. In many of his works the predominant use of black conveys a startling, strangely emotional, intensity. Warm and earthy ochres, and a palpable sense of spirituality, invite the viewer on the one hand, to consider the unfolding of important events, while at the same time, purposefully sustain us in an ancient and timeless landscape. Thomas began painting in his fifties, after spending forty years as a stockman. 'I been all over, me,' he said, when describing his intimate knowledge and involvement with the vast expanses of sparse desert and Kimberley terrain. He settled at Warmun in 1975, rather than returning to his own country deep in the desert, after political decisions caused large numbers of Aboriginal stockmen to be displaced from pastoral leases. Cyclone Tracy had cataclysmically laid waste to Darwin the previous Christmas and many Aborigines saw it as a sign that their culture and traditions needed strengthening. A powerful dream, involving the spirit of Rover’s dead aunt, inspired him to create a song and dance cycle that evolved into the Krill Krill ceremony. The spirit described the details of a journey that she had undertaken after her death, in the company of other spirit beings. In Rover’s re-visitation of that dream he too saw the places and the characters involved in the saga. At the end of the song cycle the travelling spirit looks from Wyndham, across the waters to the northeast, and witnesses the Rainbow Serpent’s vengeful destruction of the Territory capital. The ceremonial reenactment of this dream took place for the first time in 1977 and was repeated at a number of locations in the East Kimberley region, in Arnhem Land, and further field through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. During the ceremony painted boards, depicting the important sites and spirit beings, were carried on the shoulders of the participants. The boards used in the early ceremonies were created by Rover’s uncle and mentor, Paddy Jaminji, who was assisted by Jacko Dolmyn, Paddy Mosquito, Rover, and others. In 1980 the Warmun community was still small and populated by a core of older Gija people. Rover himself did not paint as an individual until 1981. There were very few private galleries that specialised in Aboriginal art at the time. The Federal Government’s marketing company, Traditional Aboriginal Arts (Aboriginal Arts Australia *), had galleries in most state capitals, including Perth, where Mary Macha, who had been a project officer with the W.A. Native Welfare Department since 1971, ran the company gallery. Paddy Jaminji had been the only person carving artefacts for sale during Macha’s field trips to Warmun throughout the 1970s. With assistance from Don McLeod, a field officer for the Department of Employment based in Kununurra, Paddy’s artefacts, including carved owls and ochre decorated boomerangs, made their way to her down south where they could be sold. In 1981 Mary Macha travelled to Turkey Creek with Mcleod on a field trip and saw Jaminji’s Krill Krill boards for the first time. These original boards, made only for the corroboree, were painted in earth pigments on housing debris, pieces of formica, wall panelling and wood from old packing cases. Despite originally refusing to sell boards to her, as they were used repeatedly in the Krill Krill ceremony and the board was difficult to replace, Jaminji later sold three shipments of paintings to Macha after she agreed to send good boards for him to paint on in future. Another frequent visitor to the community, and purchaser of artworks, from that time onward was Neil McLeod ** who began working on the first of more than 60 natural history books. Macha, McLeod and others relied on assistance from the Turkey Creek administrator, Remus Rauba, in order to arrange communication with the artists in the absence of phones and for the shipment of paintings out of the community. In 1983 Macha left Aboriginal Arts Australia frustrated at their insistence on centralised buying and accounting from its Sydney headquarters, and decided to become an independent agent and consultant, representing Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji and other Western Australian Aboriginal artists. She remembered fondly Rover emerging from of a crowd at Warmun during her previous visit and, announcing himself to her, stated ‘Rover Thomas, I want to paint’. As a now independent dealer, she decided to support Thomas and Jaminjii and brought them down to Perth in 1984 and on a number of subsequent occasions to paint at her home in Subiaco where she made her garage into a studio. Rover’s lead was soon followed by others and sparked a spiritual and cultural revival within the community, gradually expanding its influence and establishing the distinctive East Kimberley painting style. Other than Macha, McLeod and, for a short time in the mid-1980’s Chips MacInolty at Mimi Arts and Crafts in Katherine, the emerging art developed without assistance. In 1986, following a report written by Joel Smoker, the Kimberley Law and Culture Centre established Waringarri Aboriginal Art in Kununurra and Goolarabooloo Arts in Broome to help market the art of the region. While his public profile and reputation grew and his work gained wider commercial exposure through Waringarri’s exhibitions, Rover, and other artists, including George Mung Mung and Jack Britten, painted works of art from the mid-1980’s for anyone who turned up in the community and could be persuaded to part with their money. This included workers and advisers to the nascent Argyle Diamond Mine, government bureaucrats, casual visitors and dealers. Exhibitions organized by the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the National Gallery of Australia followed, and culminated in Rover's selection as one of Australia’s two representatives at the Venice Biennale in 1990. These events, as well as his recognition on winning the John McCaughey prize, all increased his national and international prominence and generated the ever-growing number of agents and galleries who sought to represent him. In 1995 Rover and members of his extended family travelled with Kevin Kelly, the manager of Warringari Arts, back to his birthplace on the Canning Stock Route, inspiring an impressive body of work. During the following year Peter Harrison of Kimberley Art Gallery and Neil McLeod took Rover Thomas and Freddy Timms to Melbourne. They lived with McLeod and painted daily in his studio in the Dandenongs. McLeod, a close friend and associate of Lin Onus, whose own studio was less than a kilometre away, hosted Thomas and Timms providing the support they required to produce a large body of work. These works were sold through Kimberley Art in Melbourne, Utopia Art in Sydney, Fireworks Gallery in Brisbane, and a number of other outlets, as well as to a band of dealers and private collectors who gathered around the artists during their time working in this studio environment. Upon their return to Turkey Creek, with advice from Peter Harrison, Dave Rock, the Warmun administrator introduced a scale of payments for each artist to counter exploitative payments by dealers who would turn up at the pensioner unit to commission artists and purchase works. Coo-ee Aboriginal Art ran two printmaking workshops in the community in the late 1990s and Rover Thomas, along with other important male and female artists including Queenie McKenzie and Jack Britten created acetates, plaster engravings, and linocut prints that were editioned by Studio One in Canberra during the following year. During the workshops many of their children made prints, while being mentored by the older artist’s. At the time the unfunded art centre was run by Maxine Taylor, who had been appointed by the Warmun Council. Referred to as Warmun Traditional Artists while under her management, it acted as the art centre in the community until 1998 when Kevin Kelly, instigated its incorporation. With a proper constitution and financial accountability, the growing art community at Turkey Creek was finally serviced by an ‘official’ art centre almost two decades after the first paintings were produced by artists who had already achieved international recognition. In his final years, Rover worked for all of these organizations and, after Maxine Taylor left Warmun, he often visited her and painted at her home in Wyndham, where she had first met him. At this stage of his life, he referred to Taylor fondly as Nyumun (auntie), just as he did to Macha, who he began working with 20 years earlier. Rover Thomas died on April 11, 1998 and was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Australia. The power of his work was reflected in the attention it commanded from the beginning of his 15-year career. Since first exhibiting in 1987 there has been a constant demand for his paintings, which are now represented in all major galleries in Australia. He is recognized as the major figure in contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. His legacy is a substantial body of significant paintings that provide an enduring, unique, insight into the numinous landscape of the Kimberley region and the human relationships and events that have become part of its history. *The Government marketing Company began under different names in different places and throughout its 16-year operations changed its name and identity several times eventually becoming Aboriginal Arts Australia. **Neil McLeod and Don McLeod are not related
had he become an artist in his country, on the Canning Stock Route, it would have developed along completely different lines
After his inclusion in the 1990 Venice Biennale and his solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1994, Rover’s work was in such demand that his pieces were hard to procure in the primary market. He was perceived as a world-class contemporary painter whose art was highly collectable, yet few galleries could gain access to his work. In 1994 there was no art centre where he lived and paintings were produced for Waringarri Arts only on those occasions when he visited Kununurra, or when the art coordinator, Joel Smoker, managed to travel down to the community. Many independent dealers spent time at the pensioner unit in Turkey Creek watching him paint works that they commissioned and it was inevitable that one or more of them would arrange for the artist to travel to an environment where he could produce a body of work large enough to meet the burgeoning demand. From this time in his career, Kimberley Art in Melbourne became a major supplier of his works in the primary market. Although the first Rover Thomas painting appeared at auction in 1995, by 1997 no less than ten works had been offered of which nine sold at an average price of $18,000. In that year his highest price achieved was $68,500. While his prices at auction were well above primary market expectations for his equivalent works, or those of any other artist, his record price, set in 2001, is more than ten times higher and his current average price and three times that of 1997. In 1998, the year Rover passed away, his record price exceeded $100,000 for the first time when in August Texas Downs Station sold for $108,100 at Deutscher~Menzies. The following year two more paintings exceeded $100,000. On the back of these sales his average sale price doubled to $36,500 between 1997 and 1999. Almost twice the number of works were offered during 2000 with Deutscher-Menzies alone including no less than 19 pieces by Rover Thomas in its first stand-alone Aboriginal art sale in June. It was all but inevitable that the sale rate would be affected. Other auction houses were equally unsuccessful that year apart from Sotheby’s, which discriminated against more contemporary pieces in favour of his earlier 1980s boards and those canvases with either Mary Macha or Waringarri Art Centre provenance. The inference that all other works were suspect and unworthy of the best collections went uncontested and has continued to prejudice works produced for a number of independent dealers to this day, most significantly those for Neil McLeod. The average sale price of Thomas’s works dipped slightly in 2000 despite previously unabated growth, however it continued to rise none the less, albeit at a slower rate. Art buyers, including those not at all interested in Aboriginal art, understood intuitively that Rover Thomas was an art phenomenon and that his work was the equal of any contemporary artist, having transcended its ethnographic origins. Undeterred in their enthusiasm, they invested heavily between 2000 and 2002 and his prices again rose steeply and continued to do so right through to 2003 by which time they had reached the plateau that was maintained right through to 2005. This rapid growth was spurred on by the by the National Gallery of Australia's purchase of All that Big Rain Coming Down Top Side 1991 in 2001. The price tag was $778,750, the highest amount ever paid for an Aboriginal work of art at the time. This record stood until 2007 when eclipsed by Emily Kngwarreye’s Earth’s Creation 1995 and later by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s major Warlugulong 1976 canvas. The record, for a commissioned work which measured 180 x 120 cm, seemed ridiculous at the time when compared to his previous prices and the pre-sale estimate of $280,000-350,000. Yet subsequent market results proved sceptics entirely wrong. The interest in Rover Thomas as a contemporary artist was underscored by the fact that by 2006 only eight early boards were amongst his 30 highest priced works at auction, and not one of these were included in his top ten results. The closest was produced by the artist in 1985, and stood at number 16. From that time, and until 2008, his results were nothing short of spectacular. Bugaltji - Lissadell Country 1986 became his second highest result when sold for $660,000 at Sotheby's in July 2006 (Lot 95). The work measuring 90 x 180 cm. was painted in earth pigments and bush gum on canvas. Sold previously through Lauraine Diggins Fine Art it was estimated at $400,000-600,000. Another, Willy Willy, 1995, sold at Deutscher~Menzies in September 2007 for at $456,000 having previously achieved $240,000 when sold by sister company Lawson~Menzies in November 2004 (Lot 45). Prior to 2007 this first sale of Willy Willy stood as the artist’s tenth highest sales record. It is now his 22nd while the new price achieved by Deutscher~Menzies for this very same work is his fifth highest listing. Overall, 2007 saw no less than five records replaced in his top ten secondary market results. A very different result than that recorded for the following year when the highest sale was just $144,000, then his 22nd highest record. Nevertheless this was still a very good result for a Mary Macha provenanced work measuring just 92 x 102 cm. 2009 was more fruitful creating new records at third and tenth amongst his career best sales. Of 153 works sold between 1995 and 2006, 30% achieved prices ranging between $10,000 and $25,000, 22% sold between $25,000 and $50,000, and 15% between $50,000 and $100,000. It is interesting to compare these percentages to more recent sales. During the four years between 2005 and 2008, 97 works sold of which 23% achieved prices between $10,000 and $25,000, and 18% between $25,000 and 50,000, while 33% sold for more than $50,000. Of the later group, seven sold for between $100,000 and $200,000 and a staggering ten have sold for more than $200,000. However sales between 2010 and 2020 have painted a very different story indeed. During this decade period just 8 works sold for over $100,000. Only eleven original works on paper have sold with two falling in the $10,000 - $15,000 range, while 41 prints have sold from 68 offered. His highest results for graphics have been two works produced by Coo-ee Aboriginal Art. Originally sold in primary galleries for $750, Mt. Newman (State 1) 1996 sold for $10,200 at Sotheby’s in 2003, and Punmu – The Universe 1995 sold for $8,400 at Sotheby’s in 2004. Resales of Thomas’s works have generally resulted in large increases over the original purchase price, as would be expected. Between 1999 and 2002 Mainbury c.1986 increased in value from $18,400 to $47,500 while Sotheby’s sold Juntarkal Rainbow Serpent 1985 for $85,000 in July 2003 only to resell the work just 12 months later for $147,375. In a more realistic yet equally spectacular result Rain Cloud 1990 jumped in value between Sotheby’s 2001 and 2005 sales from $127,750 to $329,500. However several less appealing images did not achieve their hoped for increase in price, with a few such as Tjadarung c.1984, and Crossroads c.1996 failing to sell altogether in Sotheby's 2003 and 2005 offerings. And in their disastrous July 2008 sale, Sotheby’s failed to find a buyer for the beautiful 90 x 180 cm Ord River image on ply board that Rover created in 1984 for Mary Macha on which they put a massive $500,000-700,000 estimate. The work was originally estimated in Sotheby’s June 1999 auction at $80,000-120,000 and had been purchased by Lauraine Diggins for just $96,000. Another work that passed through Diggins’ hands was the Macha provenanced Bungullgi 1989 sold by Lawson~Menzies in November 2007 for $450,000 (Lot 59), when carrying a pre-sale estimate of $500,000-700,000. Two years later it stood as the artist’s fifth highest record yet was put to the market once more with a mysteriously lower estimate of $400,000-500,000, this time by the same company under the more prestigious Deutscher Menzies brand. It sold for $528,000 and set the third highest sale record, pushing its former result to sixth amongst the artist’s top ten results to date. When offered for sale yet again in 2015 it sold for just $380,455. Works by Rover Thomas have experienced a decided downturn in interest during the past decade. While 14 works were offered for sale in 2019 his highest price that year was only $44,000. He was unseated as the market leader by Emily Kngwarreye in 2008 and in spite of poor performances, he remains second only to Emily Kngwarreye more than a decade later, though the gap between the two has widened considerably. By any empiracle method her works are now almost twice as successful as his and Albert Namatjira is closing rapidly on Rover as time progresses. I expect Namatjira to displace Rover Thomas within the next 2 to 3 years should this trend continue. Rover Thomas is never-the-less a blue chip Australian artist. He worked under a variety of conditions and circumstances during a career that was of major importance to the history of Australian art. His works have been amongst the most highly desired of all Aboriginal paintings and should continue to rise in value over the years ahead. While the steep increases in values seen during the five years following his death are unlikely to be replicated across the board, the best of his works will always be highly coveted.
"...his average sale price doubled to $36,500 between 1997 and 1999."