RSotheby’s Aboriginal Art Sale Ticks the Boxes in Tough Market

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 11th July 2010

If what is understood to be his auction swansong, outgoing Sotheby’s specialist Tim Klingender has managed under difficult circumstances, to put together a large mixed offering with a considerable number of high quality pieces.

Though there is little that could be described as spectacular, there are many very fine pieces of both Oceanic and Aboriginal art in this 341 lot offering to be held over two sessions on the 26th and 27th of July in Melbourne.

The sale kicks off with quality Oceanic artefacts of which the pair of Wanleg Cult Figures (Lot 12) and a New Ireland friction drum (Lot 9) are the most aesthetically pleasing and highly collectable. The Cult figures, first brought out of the Kawari caves in the 1960’s, were originally collected by Peter Halinan before last being offered through Sotheby’s in 1993. The friction drum was collected as early as 1920 by the Deputy District Officer, George Wilkinson and appears in beautiful condition.

Lots 18 to 30 include the usual fine array of aged artefacts that Sotheby’s are renowned for. This is the strength of their new specialist D’lan Davidson. Especially worthy of mention here are the beautifully carved and decorated central NSW parrying shield (Lot 21) and the rare and eccentrically incised South East Leaf Spear thrower featuring images of top hatted Europeans with beard and side-whiskers (Lot 26).

The very nice work in pen and ink on paper by early colonial artist Tommy McRae, though small, seems very good buying at $10,000-$15,000.

Of the 24 works being offered from the collection of the late Gabrielle Pizzi the most exciting are the three central Arnhem Land mokoy sculptures that feature on the front cover of the catalogue. While the identity of the creators are not entirely clear, these large pieces were made during the early 1960’s and are in fine condition. Their individual estimates may appear to be a rather ambitious at $70,000 to $100,000, however these prices should be achievable given their extreme rarity, size and Gabrielle Pizzi provenance.

These and other sculptures including the very large sculpture of the Tiwi creation ancestor Bima by Declan Apuatimi, and a lovely set of Mimi’s by the innovator of Central Arnhem carving Crusoe Kuningbal all carry exceptional provenance. The majority of Pizzi’s pieces, including the major Papunya Tula painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri were exhibited internationally, with many having featured in the landmark exhibition Aratjara, Art of the First Australians mounted by the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalan in Dusseldorf. The work by Possum featured in the artist’s solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London during 1988. Carrying a presale estimate of $250,000-$350,000, this painting is the most expensive in the sale, and rightly belongs in the finest of collections.

During the mid 1970’s, just as the desert painting enterprise at Papunya was burgeoning, sales stagnated. More than 600 painting were stacked against the walls of the art centre carrying prices of $25 to $80 each, yet no one was buying. The newly formed Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council under director Robert (Bob) Edwards, organized more than 20 overseas touring exhibitions of desert and Arnhem land art with assistance from the Rothmans and Stuyvesant Foundations in order to generate international interest.

Story of a Woman's Camp and the Origin of Damper, 1973, (Lot 55), a 122 x 92 cm board by Anatjari Tjakamarra, is a wonderful example of one of the works that toured throughout Canada between 1975 and 1976. Though sold previously by Sotheby’s in 1998 it has resided in a private UK collection for the past 13 years.

Two pieces by highly regarded Kimberley Wandjina painter Alec Minglemanganu appear in this sale, and one (Lot 97) set the artist’s current record at $244,500 (incl. BP) when last offered through Sotheby’s in June 2002. Only 14 works by this artist have ever appeared at sale and of these 11 have sold for an average price of $64,358. This makes him statistically the 14th most successful Aboriginal artists of the movement (AIAM100*). The work is being sold from the Clemenger collection and carries a pre-sale estimate of $200,000-300,000. Another early work on bark by Minglemanganu carries an ambitious estimate, given the current state of the market, of $60,000-$80,000.

The best of the remaining works being de-accessioned by the well known Melbourne collectors and philanthropists Joan and Peter Clemenger, is an 244 x 80 cm untitled painting by Emily Kngwarreye (Lot 105) created in 1993, and originally purchased through Christopher Hodges’ Utopia At Sydney. It was exhibited in both the Queensland Art Gallery retrospective and the major Japanese touring exhibition curated for the National Museum of Australia by Margo Neale, and carries a reasonable $50,000-70,000 presale estimate.

The other collection of note with a large number of works in this sale is that of American Donald Kahn, who first became interested in Australian Aboriginal art after visiting New York dealer Maureen Zarember at her Tambaran Gallery in the early 1990’s. His enthusiasm grew thereafter on visiting the Dreamings exhibition at the Asia Society in 1988.

Kahn, who lives principally in Saltzburg and London, collected a large number of Warlpiri works, in particular from Yuendumu, through the 1990’s. The best of his works in this sale is the beautifully realized Liwirringa Jukurrpa (Lot 119) by Darby Jampitjinpa Ross. Measuring 92 x 184 cm it is considered very good buying at $30,000-50,000. All of Kahn’s works however, having been re-imported to Australia, carry dagger symbols next to the estimate, indicating that 10% GST as well as the 20% buyer’s premium is to be added to the hammer price.

The final work that is particularly worthy of note is the first painting from Emily Kame Kngawrreye’s final series that has appeared at auction to date. Kngawarreye painted approximately 40 paintings during the final six weeks of her life. She was not in good health. The paintings were all executed with very large flat brushes and are realized in a just a few colourful sweeping gestures.

While several were featured in her retrospective exhibitions, these paintings reside in the hands of only a small number of dealers including Melbourne’s Hank Ebes, and Emily’s nephew, Fred Torres. Interestingly, Sotheby’s has steadfastly refused over more than a decade to offer works that have been painted for Torres, including those by the hugely popular Minnie Pwerle. This is in spite of the fact that Torres has been a highly successful Indigenous entrepreneur, and has done a highly creditable job in representing the interests of his own extended family.

This small work, (Lot 130) is listed as having been painted for Flinders Lane Gallery, but it was created for Torres, as has the vast majority of the Utopia work that has passed through Flinders Lane over the past 20 years. It toured in both of Kngwarrye’s retrospectives; has been reproduced widely; and is worth every bit of the $100,000-150,000 presale estimate.

Overall this two-night sale is a more than credible effort given the reluctance of vendors to sell works in the current uncertain market. It is a far better offering than either of Sotheby’s two most recent sales.

As befits the times only two works are on offer with estimates above $200,000, while seven exceed $100,000, and only six fall between $50,000 and 100,000. Yet with a critical mass of $4.3 to $6.2 million, it is a worthy swansong for Klingender, who has set the benchmark for collectable Aboriginal art for more than 15 years through his association with Sotheby’s.

He was never going to feel particularly at home in the new corporate environment of an Australian franchise set adrift from the international Sotheby’s group. While he will continue advising the company and its new specialist D’lan Davidson for the next six months, it has been reported that he plans to open a shop front and become an independent secondary market dealer from next year.

*This article originally appeared in the Australian Art Sales Digest

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

AIAM Rank 5 AIAM Rating 13.6954

Tommy McRae

AIAM Rank 26 AIAM Rating 5.4282

Declan Apuatimi

AIAM Rank 172 AIAM Rating 1.1248
Wandjina c. 1980 by Alec Mingelmanganu
Wandjina c. 1980
Alec Mingelmanganu

118 x 90 cm

Story of a Womans Camp and the Origin of Damper 1973 by Anatjari No. III Tjakamarra
Story of a Womans Camp and the Origin of Damper 1973
Anatjari No. III Tjakamarra

122 x 92 cm