RDisastrous Sotheby’s Aboriginal Art Sale Puts Entire Art Industry on Notice

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 4th August 2010

What a shocker. No less than 53 lots passed in the first 100 on offer. A room full of people but bereft of vitality.  Drained of animation, as lot after lot failed to inspire bidding.

In retrospect, opening the sale with Oceanic artifacts was the first, and most obvious, of the mistakes. Only five of the 15 lots sold, though the highlights were the $84,000 paid for a pair of New Guinea Wanleg Cult Figures (Lot 12); and the rare Torres Strait Island club (Lot 17) that sold for $26,400 including buyers premium against a presale estimate of just $7000-$10,000.

At the end of the first night only 76 or 43.68% of the 174 lots had been sold. The trend continued on the following afternoon.  

At the conclusion of the sale, only 138 or 40.47% of the 341 lots had sold, generating $2,036,730 including buyers premium, compared with the $4.2 million to $6.2 million low and high estimates. It was the worst art sale for Sotheby’s, since the May 1990 paintings sale which resulted in 39.8% of lots sold by number..

The first of the much anticipated sculptures from the collection of the late Gabrielle Pizzi, a 50 cm high curlew by Paddy Henry (Teeampi) Ripijingimpi (Lot 30) sold at the high estimate of $6000 while the two following Tiwi pieces sold at their low estimates. However the major Bima sculpture by Declan Apuatimi (Lot 33) carrying a highly ambitious $30,000 - $40,000 presale estimate failed to sell, and this heralded the failure of the three much touted Mokoy figures (Lot 34) onwards, illustrated on the cover.

The highly desirable set of five Mimi spirits by Crusoe Kuningbal (Lot 43) was but one amongst a raft of unsuccessful lots. Interestingly, a Camp Dog from Aurukun, (Lot 45) was catalogued as the work of an unknown artist, yet referred to in the notes as having most likely been made by a young Craig Koomeeta. As Koomeeta is still barely in his 30’s this piece could not have been made prior to 2000 yet the piece sold for $15,000, almost double its high estimate of $8,000.

Four lots in the sale carried estimates over $150,000 and all failed to sell. They included Lungkata’s Two Sons by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri estimated at $250,000-$35,000 (Lot 50) from the Gabrielle Pizzi collection; Peter and Joan Cleminger’s Wandjina by Alec Minglemanganu (Lot 97) which set the auction record for this artist when last sold by Sotheby’s in 2002; and Emily Kngwarreye’s Alalgura 4, (Lot 129) originally commissioned by Don and Janet Holt in 1991 and formerly owned by Gabrielle Pizzi.

Of the seven works by Kngwarreye in the sale, three sold. Cleminger’s Untitled  1993 (Lot 105)  at  $78,000 achieved 10% more than its very modest high estimate. This work  had toured in both the artist’s retrospective and in the National Museum of Australia’s Japanese blockbuster. The Cleminger’s Untitled (Alhalkere), (Lot 130), is the first work ever offered for sale from the artist’s final series, was yet another that failed to attract a buyer on the night.

The only high value lot to sell well, was the absolutely outstanding, large, Anatjari Tjakamarra’s Story of a Women’s Camp and the origin of Damper 1973 (Lot 55) which exceeded its high presale estimate of $250,000 when knocked down to Bill Nutall in the room for $320,000 on the hammer. The under bidder was Irene Sutton. With 30% to be added including GST, the buyer paid a record price of $416,000 for a Papunya work on composition board created as late as 1973, but carrying supreme provenance.

The other outstanding result on the night was the sale of the two north western Australian ceremonial headdresses (Lot 88) and (Lot 89). Estimated at $4000-6000 and $8000-10,000 they sold for $26,400 and $51,600 respectively.

Overall, however, the sheer number of unsold lots running in succession after succession throughout the evening was astounding for the market leader.

The Cooper Review’s recommended changes to the rules for self managed super funds wouldn't have helped. If these draconian measures are enacted the art market will be completely flooded with works being deaccessioned within the proposed  5-year statutory period.

Keen observers understand that all art markets are social constructs.  The secondary market for Australian Aboriginal art is no exception. Under the original guidance of Robert Bleakley, and then under Tim Klingender (with the inimitable and graceful Bleakley wielding the gavel with a polish reserved for the ultimately collectable), Sotheby’s Aboriginal art sales prospered for more than a decade.

The credibility Sotheby’s engendered in this small but lucrative specialist market, and the scholarship of their catalogues under Klingender’s stewardship was without peer. The imprimatur it conferred upon the market during a period of unprecedented economic growth emboldened an ever-growing number of galleries and retailers, while arts bureaucrats encouraged community after community into art production as if it was a legitimate employment strategy.

The secondary market will never be able to cope with the hundreds of thousands of artworks being purchased that will some day be offered for sale. After 2000, many artist's works were  introduced to the auction arena while the paint was still wet as ‘investors’ bought ubiquitous works by name artists and put them to market with unseemly haste.

For a while it has been a very beautiful ‘snow egg’. But crack the elitist veneer and the inside simply melts.

The business press, dealers, insiders and collectors may try to put this failure down to the GFC - but this would be far too convenient. The markets hate uncertainty, and the recent triple whammy 'bad news'  of the Cooper Report, Artist Resale Royalty and forgeries in the upper end of the (non-aboriginal) market may have also been factors.  But the issues go far deeper and something far more complex is at work here.

As I write, total 2010 sales of works by Aboriginal artists at auction currently stands at $5.6 million. It is now more than 4 years since the market peaked at $23.6 million. An overview of auction sales by Aboriginal artists between 2004 and 2010 clearly indicates that the 2007 peak was an anomaly. Sales will track in the more achievable $8 million to $12 million range for at least the next 5 years.

There were lessons in this sale and Deutscher and Hackett’s  William Mora ‘collection’ the previous week that would not have been lost on arch-rival Rod Menzies. He was conspicuous throughout the Sotheby’s sale in his customary position at the back of the room.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

AIAM Rank 1 AIAM Rating 37.3548

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

AIAM Rank 5 AIAM Rating 13.6954

Declan Apuatimi

AIAM Rank 172 AIAM Rating 1.1248
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

Curlew c. 1970 by Declan Apuatimi
Curlew c. 1970
Declan Apuatimi

34.5 cm