The importance of an indigenous artist can be related to both their cultural role and their creative output. Most of the determining factors that work in the contemporary and international art markets hold true for indigenous art as well. These include the recognised importance of their role in the development or history of a particular art style, the number of solo exhibitions they have held, their representation, the quality of the galleries they are shown in, and the number of important collections their work has been placed into.
When considering an artwork, ask yourself the following three questions:
Is this work entirely consistent with the artist’s cultural background?
When people refer to Indigenous Australian art as a ‘school of art’, I try to explain to them that, if that term means anything at all in the Australian context, Aboriginal art consists of many different schools. Each and every tribe in Australia has its own approach to art and each is stylistically different and as instantly recognisable as say cubism or expressionism in European art. Each of these tribal styles conforms to regional styles that have had their master practitioners and leaders.
What do I know about this Artist’s career?
Throughout an artist’s career their art goes through a number of developmental stages. In the case of traditional artists, this can be due to their having gained the right culturally to depict additional stories in new ways; their adoption of new mediums; or, in the case of a number of very important desert artists, their abandonment of ethnographically specific iconography in favour of more abstracted minimal imagery. It is of course much easier to identify changes in style amongst urban aboriginal artists, as this is very similar to looking at any other contemporary work.
An artist’s renown may be the result of works created throughout their entire career, or due to a particular period during their career. For instance, the majority of Rover Thomas’s early ceremonial boards, produced between 1979 and 1984, are more highly prized and valued than many of his later works produced when he had come to think of himself as a contemporary painter. This is also the case in the career of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, whose early 1972 Papunya boards have sold for upwards of $400,000, while most of his paintings produced after the 1980s languished in the market throughout the 1990s and have only recently begun to be viewed more favourably. Yet the most desirable paintings by Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri are their minimal and ethereal late career paintings.
Click this link to learn more about the careers of the most important Aboriginal artists and the periods and styles of paintings that are the most highly desirable, written and maintained by indigenous art specialists, Mirri Leven and myself.
The careers of most popular artists illustrate the above issues when it comes to placing a value on their work.
The Balgo Hills artist Elizabeth Nyumi painted from the late 1980s until 2011, but achieved greatest prominence for paintings created just prior to and after having been selected as a feature artist in the 14th Biennale of Sydney in 2004. These texturally liquid, ripely coloured paintings were a significant creative advance on earlier flatter depictions of her country and the almost generic paintings she made at the beginning of her career. Yet her late career works, created between 2006-2008, do not exhibit the same qualities that made those paintings from 1999-2004 so very popular, despite the enormous increase in her prices over the period. This makes it imperative that, in considering the work of this particular artist, you determine what her most popular periods were.
1980s paintings by the formative Papunya painters may currently be out of fashion, but they would seem to represent a wonderful opportunity for the collector. After all, these artists were amongst the most important of the ‘golden age’ of the movement, and their 1980s paintings represent the moment when they began to see themselves as painters and artists as opposed to ethnographic recorders of cultural information. A fine collection of works by the artists of this period would be relatively inexpensive to put together. Surely, if these were collected carefully, documented properly, toured, and loaned to various institutions, their recognition and hence value would increase markedly over the next decade or two. The same could be said of the male artists of the Utopia region in the Eastern Desert, whose work has been largely overlooked due to the emergence and current pre-dominance of female artists from that region.
Is this artist recognised nationally?
There are as many different types of art in the universe as there are cultures that populate it. All art worlds, almost without exception, are an elitist construct; Australian indigenous art is no different. When it comes to the prominence of particular artists and the financial value of their paintings, many factors may come into play.
Buyers are, for the most part, historically ignorant and strongly influenced by the activity and promotion of elite gallery directors and important curators and experts that specialise in a particular ‘taste culture’. All dealers have artists and regions that they are committed to promoting, and they do so through powerful and strategically calculated business practices. They promote their galleries and businesses in order to advance their own bone fides. By attaching their imprimatur to the artists and paintings that they represent, they add value and cache to the artworks that are purchased from them in preference to those that are purchased through alternative sources. Naturally, elite galleries function best when they can tie up a particular artist’s work and gain exclusive access to it. By denying access to others they can have confidence in advertising the artist’s work widely and setting the prices at whatever level they like. In a buoyant market this exclusive access ensures success.
While this principle works well in the non-indigenous art market, it is not entirely suited to Aboriginal art. I have observed the great pride and satisfaction that many artists derive from the knowledge that they have a number of alternative people to whom they can sell their art. More and more the market is developing in a way that sees artists exploring possibilities outside of the art centre/elite gallery nexus. Despite a strong argument that this leads to exploitation and undermines the market, the number of options open to Aboriginal artists continues to increase over time.
Alongside those artists that have achieved the degree of recognition that they truly deserve, the world is full of mediocre artists that have ‘made it’ and great artists who have not. The nature of the art market dictates that good dealers, curators, and institutions become the determining difference in the careers of the great majority of artists. Yet, once an artist becomes well known their options open up greatly. For many the fact that they work outside of the art centre/elite gallery construct has done little, if anything, to diminish their fame or financial rewards. In fact, in many cases, quite the opposite has occurred.
Shopping around to find a gallery that will sell a work by a desired artist at the cheapest price is generally not in your best long-term interest. A large number of factors must be taken into consideration if you wish to ensure the price you pay represents good value.
If you are simply buying a painting in order to decorate your home, this may not be such an important issue for you. After all, so many people insist that they buy simply to enjoy and have no intention of ever selling. However, I have learnt from experience that few collectors enjoy the thought that the value of an artwork they have purchased may actually decrease over the life of their ownership.
You may be surprised to learn that the majority of art actually decreases in value in real terms over time. I say ‘in real terms’ in order to take into account the effects of inflation and the costs involved in selling the piece at the time you choose to exercise your ‘exit strategy’.
Secondary sales compete in the market with works being produced by currently practicing living artists that sell through retail shops and exhibiting galleries throughout Australia and overseas. Most of the artworks being sold year after year in the ‘primary market’ will eventually join the ‘secondary’ market.