A collection is a curious thing. The best can be far greater than the sum of its individual parts. If it is put together with care, love, and scholarship, it can be enlightening and provide a genuine service to those that seek to understand the subject that it covers. It need not have been put together by professionals or institutions to be of great worth. Many of the finest collections have been developed by amateurs and enthusiasts.
At its worst extreme, however, a collection can be a disparate group of objects with nothing to link them other than the person who brought them together. While it is possible that it may contain some extremely interesting individual pieces, it will be of little interest as ‘a collection’ unless the collector was a person of the greatest renown.
It has been my own experience, as a dealer for the past 40 years, that the majority of collectors begin with a piece or two purchased on impulse before getting hooked on a particular art form and being confronted with the inevitable question: ‘What am I trying to achieve and where do I want to go with this?’
Many simply collect until they have no more wall space. Their own particular criteria would have been to find a piece that suits each individual nook and cranny of their home or office, matching the furniture and fittings. Others begin to seriously question their aims as their collection builds, and they realise that they will need to limit their future purchases according to certain criteria. These criteria usually vary according to price, medium, genre, and region.
I am reminded of a client who visited my gallery early in my own career. The daughter of a famous expatriate Australian painter, she had grown up with art and artists and, at the time I met her, she had just joined the public service. It was the beginning of her working life and she had just fallen in love with Indigenous art, believing she could spend up to about $8000 each year of her fairly modest income on her ‘great passion’. What should I collect? she asked. Should I buy works on paper by famous artists, as their major works are far too expensive? Should I concentrate on emerging artists? After some discussion she decided, with my encouragement, to continue to visit galleries, seek out interesting shows, and ensure she was on their mailing lists. She would subscribe to as many art magazines as possible and visit state and national galleries in order to be as aware as possible of all the latest artists and communities emerging onto the scene. But she would purchase only one major work each year. She decided that any artist whose work she collected should be represented by exhibiting galleries and have been promoted by them in national art magazines. At that time, in the early 1990s, she was able to buy works by Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye as well as many of the finest artists that were to emerge later including Maggie Watson and Dorothy Napangardi. Over the following 25 years she advanced through the public service eventually working in Europe for UNESCO. Her income increased greatly as did her yearly spending, yet her decision to collect just one fine example of an artist’s best work each year developed into a collection of the highest value both aesthetically and financially.
Many others have consulted with me over the years with different priorities. The finest privately owned Indigenous works on paper collection in Australia is owned by a retired Professor from Sydney University who, coincidentally, taught me chemistry in the late 1960s. I was asked to speak at her retirement dinner several years ago and was able to enlighten her past and present students and colleagues about a passion that had been one of the touchstones of her life outside of the university for more than 30 years.
Many others have built strong collections based on the region in which they live. An internationally renowned botanist and ecologist who worked on the site survey teams for the development of the North West Shelf Oil Deposits, the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and the Argyle Diamond Mine during the 1980s. Now in her 90s, her own collection of Aboriginal art and artefacts from the Kimberley region is diverse and fascinating and reflects a vital formative period in the development of that regional style. Later, when advising others on their own collections, she was able to impart the importance of a strong focus, despite their own interest in regions further afield.
Amongst the Aboriginal art enthusiasts I have known, were people who collected only bark paintings; old tools and weapons; pre-contact material; paintings which only depict certain types of ceremonies; early Papunya desert boards; acrylic paintings of the late 1970s and early 1980s by Pintupi men; and the list could go on and on.
One of the most exciting things about Australian indigenous art is that it is so incredibly diverse, historically, regionally and stylistically. With thousands of individual artists from hundreds of different tribal groups covering a continent as large as Australia, the number of collecting criteria is endless, giving you the opportunity of doing something quite unique with your own collection despite the ever-growing popularity of the art. Many of the most interesting esoteric pieces are actually not that expensive in comparison to major paintings by the top artists. The fact that the majority of collectors are not that well informed about the field and don’t have a strong historical perspective on the art and the movement, provides a great opportunity for the serious collector to purchase interesting works that will fit into unusual collections at very reasonable prices. As the market itself becomes more knowledgeable, these collections will value rapidly.
You may decide to concentrate on women’s paintings, depictions of bush foods, specific dreaming sites, images associated with water and abundance. The list could go on and on. No matter what your interest, my advice is to follow the tips that I outlined earlier: decide how much money you are comfortable committing each year; get onto as many gallery mailing lists and subscribe to as many art magazines and auction catalogues as you can; build a good library and get to know the dealers and other collectors by attending the openings. Take your time and see as much as you can while you come to your own conclusions about the artists and art styles that you are most interested in adding to your own collection.
TIP NUMBER 2
Beware a wolf in sheep’s clothing
It is not just the name of the artist that counts, as the quality and provenance of the artwork can be major factors in determining value. A quality work by a prominent artist will almost always increase in value while an inferior work by the same artist will almost always be a risk. Collecting the wrong works can be avoided by consulting a gallery that you trust. It is wise to remember the adage ‘The Painting is King’. I always say that a ‘great painting is a great painting is a great painting!’ Regardless of its source provenance, a truly great painting will always rise like cream to the surface.
A good quality piece will always increase in value but a poor piece by the same artist, however prominent, will not prove to be a good investment
Roslyn Premont, Director, Gallery Gondawana, December 2004
Just because the artist is known doesn’t make it a good piece of art.
Virginia Wilson, Art Consultant, March 2011