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Sam Tjampitjin was an artist capable of truly remarkable paintings, yet he painted relatively generic works in equal measure, throughout a career that lasted no more than 14 years. In many ways, his highest three results exemplify the stylistic differences amongst his finest works.
When looking at the emblematic Wirtinpiyi 1991, a painting created at the beginning of his career and reproduced in several books, it is possible to see a direct line to paintings he and other Balgo men, most especially Tjumpo Tjapanangka and Helicopter Tjunurrayi, created after 2000. It is fascinating in this regard to look at pages 206-207 in Sotheby’s July 2005 Aboriginal Art catalogue where Sam Tjampitjin’s Wilkinkarra 2002 sits opposite Tjumpo Tjapanangka’s Kukurpungku 2000. These two paintings, which could almost have been painted by the same hand, are indicative of the works created by these artists after their ‘return to country’ in 2000 and seem so much more alive and prescient than those produced before them. If ever there was a strong argument for facilities like the culture centres that enable artists to journey back to the source of their inspiration, this is it. The paintings created before seem flat, stale ethnographic museum pieces, when compared to paintings that are vibrant, alive and appear to sing. Of course there is a place for both, and only time will tell which endure and remain most popular amongst collectors. In Sam Tjampitjin’s case, foremost amongst these wonderful exceptions are the truly inspired Pitjandi Ceremony at Lunda 1994 and Kora, Great Sandy Desert, WA. 1995, which was illustrated in Balgo New Directions by James Cowan (page 76). When the former was offered for the first time at Sotheby’s in 1997 (Lot 78) it set a record for the artist which stood for the following three years. $8,625 was a very high price for a 120 x 80 cm work from Balgo Hills at the time, yet, when it was re-offered nine years later in October 2006, Sotheby’s managed to attract just $9,600 (Lot 56). While this may have been a very disappointing result for the seller, the buyer, in my opinion, procured one of the bargains of the decade. It makes the artist’s record holding work look positively plain by comparison, despite its own virtuosic execution. While Landa Landa near Lake MacKay 1993 is a very good work, it can hardly be worth three times more than the better and larger 1994 painting.
There have been a number of resales and reoffers amongst Sam Tjampitjin’s records. Two untitled 1994 works passed in at Sotheby’s November 2005 sale carrying estimates of $8,000-12,000 (Lot 158) and $7,000-10,000 (Lot 244) respectively. Both sold at Lawson~Menzies in June 2006 for $6,600 (Lot 76) and $6,000 (Lot 481) respectively, against presale estimates of $6,000-8,000. And a rather small 80 x 30 cm panel having failed to sell when first offered at Shapiro Auctioneers in December 2002 (Lot 228) with an estimate of $2,000-4,000, achieved $1,400 when reoffered at Lawson~Menzies in May 2004 for $1,000-1,200. Another untitled work created in 1992 failed to sell on two occasions impacting heavily on the artist’s success rate. Offered at $4,000-6,000 by Sotheby’s in October 2006 (Lot 133) the 100 x 75 cm work failed to sell once more when reoffered at Joel Fine Art in June 2007 (Lot 137).
The 47 works by Sam Tjampitjin have met with very mixed results. Yet this is an artist whose best works are only ever likely to appear on rare occasions. His strongest periods were definitely during 1990 -1994, the first five years that he painted and 2000-2002 when he was profoundly affected by his return to his country. Works painted 1995 to 1999 seem generic and uninspired and works between 2002 and his death in 2004 indicate that he had become more and more infirm as he approached the end of his life. While only two paintings have sold for more than $10,000, collectors should expect anything special by this artist to soar in price over the next decade. His best works are rare gems and canny collectors should keep their eyes peeled for their appearance at sale. If they manage to acquire a piece like Pitjandi Ceremony at Lunda 1994 for under $30,000 they should be singing about it from the rooftops.