The AIAM Index gives an indication of the general health of the industry, which is currently up up 15% from 2000 levels.
Interest in Australian Indigenous art and craft has followed an exponentially growing trajectory since Aboriginal artefacts were first traded as curios during the early colonial period in the late 18th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, artefacts were already held in private and museum collections around the world. In the early 1900s, a number of Aboriginal artists drew romantic recreations of everyday and ceremonial life and gained notoriety. Amongst them were William Barak, Tommy McRae, and Micky of Ulladulla to name but a few.
The first real art movement to emerge amongst Aboriginal people was the Hermannsburg watercolour school led by Albert Namatjira who painted his first works in 1932. His sons and a breakaway group including Otto Pareroultja followed, and by the time of Albert’s death in 1959, more than 30 artists had gained renown for realistic depicts of the desert landscape near the Western MacDonnell ranges in Central Australia.
Following the 1948 Australian American scientific expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948, the trade in bark paintings and a range of cultural items grew and these were sought out by tribal art galleries in Australia and overseas. By the early 1970s the primary retail market had grown to be worth just under $1 million coinciding with the advent of the Western Desert Art Movement at Papunya. The ‘outstation homeland’s movement’ of the 1970s assisted former nomadic Aboriginal people to establish communities back out on their tribal country sparking a creative fervour that saw the establishment of a dozen community art centres and the total Australian Indigenous art market grow to $2.5 million by 1980. It continued to grow to $20 million by 1990, $45 million by 1995, and $70 million by 2000. Sotheby’s held the first secondary market auction specialising in Australian Aboriginal art in 1994 and recorded sales of $660,000. By the end of the 1990s auction sales had reached $5 million.
By 2003 the market had doubled and peaked at $28.4 million in 2007. Though the market declined during the Global Financial Crisis and did not stabilise until 2014 it has been on a path of steady growth since that time. Today there are more than 100 community art centres throughout Australia and hundreds of Aboriginal artists who are either represented by agents and fine art galleries, or who run their own careers independently.
The highest record price for an artwork by an Australian Aboriginal Artist was set in 2006 when Sotheby’s sold Western Desert art founder Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s Wurlurkulong to the National Gallery of Australia for $2.4 million. The unrivalled Queen of Eastern Desert painting, Emily Kngwarreye set the second highest price for Earth’s Creation I, when it sold at the Cooee Art for $2.1million in 2017.
Of the top 10 record prices ever achieved for Indigenous paintings in Australia 3 are held by urban artist Lin Onus (whose highest price is $793,000) and 3 are held by the East Kimberley master painter Rover Thomas (highest price $778,750).
2016 saw the most significant annual rise in the fortunes of the Aboriginal art market since the onset of the GFC. During that year new record prices were set for Michael Nelson Tjakamarra ($687,875), William Barak ($512,000), Albert Namatjira ($122,000), Daniel Walbidi ($79,300), Mick Kubarku ($60,039), Owen Yalandja ($51,462), Robert Campbell Jnr. ($48,880), and Maringka Baker ($26,840), while Emily Kngwarreye was the most traded artist with 27 works offered for sale, followed by Albert Namatjira with 24.
The period 2016 to 2020 saw a steady rise in the overall strength of the market despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Counter-intuitively, high-end art sales benefited from the downturn in first class international travel and five-star hotel accommodation.
With international attention generated by shows at Gagosian Galleries in New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, Emily Kngwarreye set 4 of the highest prices achieved at auction during 2020 and 3 of the highest prices during 2021 (to June). Other artists to hit high water marks in 2021 were, in Onus, Rover Thomas, the contemporary artist Tracy Moffatt and Ginger Riley Mundawalawala.
Overall, the growth in confidence, and the upward trajectory in sales totals and average prices for the top 200 indigenous artists since the GFC, indicates that the market will continue to grow at a rate considerably faster than the overall economy at least until 2025.