RMichael Nelson’s Five Dreamings sets market alight at Sotheby’s London Sale

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 23rd September 2016

Michael Nelson’s Five Dreamings sets market alight at Sotheby’s London Sale


The September 21st 2016 Sotheby’s London sale of 92 Aboriginal Australian artworks was, as we have come to expect, a museological, tightly focused ethnographic offering.

The auction featured major paintings from the Estate of Gabrielle Pizzi, whose well-documented collection had been exhibited in Europe, Russia, The Middle East, Asia and Australia, including 'Dreamings' at the Asia Society New York, 'Aratjara' at the Hayward Gallery in London, and 'Genesis and Genius' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Also included were works from the Fiona Brockhoff Collection, showcasing what Sotheby's described as "the finest early Aboriginal figurative sculptures ever to be offered at public sale".

Spanning more than 200 years, the artworks varied from exceptional early artefacts, to 1960s bark paintings, early Western Desert boards, 1980s canvases, and contemporary paintings by a number of notable artists such as Emily Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi and Walimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri.

The most newsworthy success of the sale was for Michael Nelson Tjakamarra’s iconic work, Five Stories, 1984, (Lot 60, featured above) which achieved the record price for the artist. Not only is this 40 times higher than his previous highest result of $AUD17,080 but it is also the 4th highest record of all time for any Aboriginal artwork and the highest price achieved for any Aboriginal artist currently alive. The work has an extremely strong exhibition history and was prominent in the literature. Gabrielle Pizzi reputedly once offered it for sale for just $15,000 but, having received the cheque, changed her mind and popped it back into the envelope and returned it to the prospective buyer. Now owned by Pizzi’s daughter Samantha, the painting achieved a whopping $AUD684,000 (GBP401,000) including buyers premium, more than doubling the pre-sale estimate of $AUD256,500-$342,000 (GBP150,000-200,000).

In the absence of any interest from Australian institutions, the artist himself gave written permission for an export license to be issued two months prior to the sale, and travelled to New York City, London and Vienna personally promoting the work on behalf of Sotheby's.


Another standout success was achieved for a pair of small sculptures depicting the Tiwi creation ancestors Purukapali and his wife Bima (Lot 29). Attributed to Benedict Palmeiua Munkara they sold for $AUD430,566 (GBP257,000) against a pre-sale estimate of GBP30,000-50,000.

The sale of these sculptures and the Michael Nelson painting alone ensured the sale would be considered a success. However, there were many notable failures amongst the offering of 92 highly selected pieces.

While the sale began on a high with all 12 quality artefacts finding new homes there were a number of excellent bark paintings that either failed to sell or went for prices well below their market value. Two lovely Murray River Broad Shields (Lots 1 and 2) achieved $AUD51,500 and $AUD38,600 respectively but of the sixteen early barks that followed, six went unsold including quite lovely works by Paddy Compass and David Yirawala. And three 1960s Tiwi paintings sold cheaply between $AUD6,400 and $AUD8,500.

The four early Papunya boards did not fair well. Only Shorty Lungkarda’s Sandhill Dreaming found a new home, albeit for $AUD107,213.


Overall the contemporary paintings on offer also faired badly. Just as the sale was winding down, the third last work for the evening was an untitled work by Walimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri measuring 183 x 244 cm. It was by far the most successful contemporary painting in the sale, achieving a stunning $AUD286,473.

Other contemporary paintings barely achieved their low estimates or failed to sell altogether. Amongst these were excellent works by Papunya stalwarts George Tjungurrayi, Ningura Napurrula, Makinti Napanangka, Walangkuura Napanangka, and Joseph Jurra Tjakamarra and Balgo Hills master Tjumpo Tjapanangka.

Just four items in this entire sale (all referred to above) generated no less than $AUD1,512,027 of the $AUD2,795,013 sale total or 54%. Thirty of the 92 works on offer (33%) failed to sell and many works fell well short of expectations.

Tim Klingender is a past-master at mining Sotheby’s back-catalogues and returning works to sale that he has handled previously time and again. The outcome however is not always advantageous to the sellers, especially once Sotheby’s commissions are deducted from the advertised sale price. Many of these works would have been far better offered for sale in Australia where a number of prominent art consultants and Sotheby’s major competitors have recently garnered more robust interest in early bark paintings and contemporary desert artworks.

- Adrian Newstead OAM


Untitled, Male and Female Figures of Purukapali And Bima by Benedict Munkara
Untitled, Male and Female Figures of Purukapali And Bima
Benedict Munkara

36 cm and 44 cm high
160921SOL #29