Mar 21, 2021
WHAT MAKES ABORIGINAL ART SO SPECIAL?
Interest in the visual arts all around the world has exploded over the past 20 years.
WHAT MAKES ABORIGINAL ART SO SPECIAL?
Interest in the visual arts all around the world has exploded over the past 20 years. There are more people collecting art now than at any other period in history, and they are collecting from a wider spectrum of artists and mediums.
Twenty years ago the number of people who went to galleries or auctions and purchased works of art was very small, and, on average, these people spent a lot of money on what they bought e.g. $20,000-50,000. In the last decade the number of people collecting art has grown though, on average, they are spending less. 
According to art market analyst Michael Reid the fiscally mature generation X ‘are the most visually literate generation to walk the planet’ to date.
Interest in Aboriginal art has increased partially because of this, however, there are two important additional reasons behind its success.
Aboriginal art speaks of nomadic tradition that encompasses a philosophy and traditional lifestyle at one with nature. As such it engenders an heroic sense of urgency and seriousness about the current threats facing the natural world. It is a window into the oldest continuing culture in the world. Beyond their beauty, this spirituality is what defines Australian Aboriginal artworks.
An intrinsic sense of oneness with nature is the foundation stone of Australian Aboriginal culture. It remains reflected within the customs and cultural practices of Australia’s original inhabitants to this day. Their beautiful and significant works of art celebrate a vibrant and powerful culture; one with a special connection to the land of their ancestors, the earth, and the natural world.
‘The land is full of knowledge, story, goodness, energy, and power. The Earth is our mother, the land is not empty. There is the story. I am telling you. It is special, sacred, important’
Wandjuk Marika (dec), Revered Elder, North East Arnhem Land
Another important reason is that as wealth has increased, people have sought to show who they are by the environment they create around them. In today’s busy world, media, press promotions and the internet aggressively emphasise the importance of the home interior. Aboriginal art fits this mindset as a large number of regional styles tend toward abstracted imagery that suits contemporary offices and homes.
(2) Story of a Womans Camp and the Origin of Damper 1973 – Anatjari No. III Tjakamarra
Sold by Sotheby’s Australia Pty. Ltd., Melbourne on 29/06/1998 for $384,000
122 x 92 cm
(3) Warlugulong, 1977 – Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Sold by Sotheby’s, Melbourne on 24/07/2007 for $2,400,000
202 x 337.5 cm
A TRAJECTORY OF SUCCESS
The first settlers arrived in Australia at the beginning of the 19th century and Aboriginal artefacts and paintings sold principally as curios or items for study by anthropologists until the 1960s. No more than 1000 paintings on bark had been created prior to 1970. In that year the first desert acrylic artworks were created and by 1980 a market for Aboriginal art grew to 2.5 million dollars on the back of its inclusion in a number of important international art events. However, sales were primarily to those with an ethnographic interest. By 1990, due to aggressive tourism, marketing, and a number of important European and American exhibitions, total sales had jumped to $20 million, constituting an increase of nearly 1,000%.
Nothing could have prepared the market for what happened next. The international powerhouse Sotheby’s began selling Aboriginal paintings in 1989 and by 1995 held its first auction specialising just in Australian Aboriginal art. This encouraged a number of Australia’s most prestigious commercial galleries to introduce works by the most important Aboriginal artists to their clients, thereby enabling them to break out of the ethnographic straightjacket that previously constrained it.
On the strength of this, Aboriginal art sales at auction had increased from just $175,000 in 1992 to more than $15 million in 2005. It had begun to attract a growing number of financially literate people with a fascination for alternative investments. Many were particularly drawn by the excitement that accompanied the numerous record-setting auction prices being established for living Indigenous artists.
While it had been hard to sell even the most collectable works for $10,000 in 1990 (almost 20 years after the modern Aboriginal art movement had begun), many of these same works were now selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Influential market analysts like Robert Milliken enthusiastically endorsed market hype by noting the exponential rise in value of works by recently deceased artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye.
In Australia, the sophisticated way in which Indigenous art was being shown and marketed in contemporary galleries, not only forced specialist galleries to lift their game, but also attracted an entirely new competitor into the market: Brokers, with financial and equity market backgrounds, began buying and trading ‘portfolios’ of art that could be traded-up, with the brokers’ assistance, over time. In order to do so, these ‘investment galleries’ needed to have access to a wide variety of art across a range of mediums that would enable them to develop portfolios beginning at $15,000 and growing to perhaps $250,000. Aboriginal prints and works on paper were ideal as entry-level purchases.
In 2008, the global financial crisis first hit investor confidence and total Australian art sales at auction fell from $175 million to $104 million. Aboriginal art sales fell by almost 50% to $13.4 million. Two years later, in 2010, it was $10.1 million.
Interestingly in 2010 the highest price paid for an Aboriginal painting was the $384,000 paid by the National Museum of Australia for Anatjari Tjakamarra’s early board, Story of a Woman’s Camp and the Origin Of Damper 1973, at Sotheby’s in July. In fact the value of the 10th highest priced sale at auction in 2010 was only $96,000. It was a far cry from from Clifford Possum’s record setting Warlugulong, 1977, which sold in 2007 – just 6 months before the global meltdown – for $2,4 million.
Nevertheless, the market is resilient and is poised to grow once more. The economic downturn and a period of generational change has seen a number of ‘investment’ dealers, exhibiting galleries, and retailers close shop. This has already helped those that continue trading to do so more profitably.
While my enthusiasm for Aboriginal art, as well as my optimism in regard to the art market, should be apparent from what I have written above, this does not discount the fact that a great deal of art, including Aboriginal art, does not increase in value in real terms over time. If this seems, upon first reading, a paradox, I urge you to read on. The advice imparted in this book is the product of 40 years experience in the field. I have been continually present throughout the period during which Aboriginal art changed from ‘cultural product’ to ‘contemporary art’, as it entered contemporary art galleries and major collecting institutions. Buyers without a solid knowledge of the aesthetics and history of Aboriginal material culture should understand that the largest part of ‘Contemporary’ is ‘temporary’. For this reason alone, knowing what to purchase and where, how Aboriginal art is presented and sold, what to avoid, and how to build the value of your developing collection, are fundamental skills that are extremely useful in the armoury of any good collector.
 Mary Dymon, Art as an Investment, Limelight Online July 8th 2004
 Rachael Brown,The Art of Making Money, The Sunday Age holiday guide p14 January 2nd 2005
 Robert Milliken, A Good Investment of the Wary Buyer, The Financial Review, Perspective, December 23rd 2004, p25