RSotheby’s Tribal Focus Risks Loss Of Market Share

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 10th November 2010

Sotheby’s new Aboriginal art specialist D’Lan Davidson has put together a solid ‘tribal’ offering for his first end of year sale. There are, however, no unusual surprises to arouse buyers in an auction that relies heavily on two major artifact and bark painting collections, broadened in scope by 22 Hermannsburg watercolours and 41 acrylic paintings on canvas that were created post 1980.

The sale comprises 219 lots of which 123 are valued below $5,000 with only three above $100,000. Its value on low and high estimates is $1,653,000 to $2,434,000. Curious! convention normally dictates that high estimates are usually 15-20% above the low estimates. Yet in this sale the margin is almost 50%. Why? No doubt because of Sotheby’s reluctance to drop values despite current market realities (in order to maintain the allure of their brand), while recognising the financial imperative of doing so (in order to lift their flagging clearance rates).

The sale relies heavily on the bark painting collection of Sandra le Brun Holmes and her daughter Amanda. Holmes was arguably the most significant collector of Tiwi and western Arnhem Land art during the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. Her abiding achievement was to gather, largely against the odds, more than 100 works documenting important aspects of the Maraian ritual now housed in the National Gallery of Australia. Holmes published the first biography of a bark artist, ‘Yirawala, Artist and Man’. The film ‘Yirawala, Picasso of Arnhem Land’ was made with her husband, documentary filmmaker Cecil Holmes. Together they also made films about the ceremonial life of the Tiwi and gathered their extensive collection of Tiwi bark paintings and sculpture, now housed in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. The Holmes’s were amongst a band of enthusiasts and sympathisers who watched the commercialisation of Aboriginal art during the 1960’s and onward with sincere misgivings. They believed that the fabric of Aboriginal religious life was being torn to shreds. Important paintings and artifacts, which in their totality related all of the aspects of sacred stories and ceremonies, were being scattered around the world in fragments when sold as individual works of art.

Sandra Holmes collected many of the pieces used in the ceremonies she witnessed while recording on behalf of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra. Like Emily Carr, the great fauvist artist and recorder of Canadian tribal culture, Holmes was disgusted by the ‘so called craft warehouse’ on Bathurst Island where ‘the religious records of the Tiwi people were sold to visiting dealers’. She had scant regard for international collectors such as Louis Allan believing that the best pieces should not be allowed to leave the country.

That said, Sandra Holmes has been a regular contributor to Sotheby’s sales for more than two decades. The works in this catalogue represent the last remnants of her considerable collection and, not surprisingly, it contains a mix of her few favourite works by Yirawala, amongst a much larger quantity of mediocre material. There are no less than 13 works by Yirawala in this auction. Remarkable when one considers that only 109 works have ever appeared at sale previously. Of these 65% have sold at an average price of $12,906 each.

His finest works on offer here are Lots 80 Kundaagi-Red Plains Kangaroo, 1962, estimated to sell for between $30,000 and $40,000, and the extraordinarily graphic Maralaittj – The Mother of the North (Lot 100) estimated at $40,000 to $60,000. Both of these should enter the artists highest 10 results, with the latter set to smash the artist’s current record price at sale, which currently stands at $49,850.

Amongst the other artists represented are Paddy Compass Namatbara, Jimmy MIdjaw Midjaw, Bobby Ngainjmirra, Mawalan and Wandjuk Marika, Narritjin Maymurru, and David Malangi, all of whom rate amongst the top 200 artists of the Aboriginal art movement.

The other large collection represented in this sale is that of former member of the NSW Legislative Council, the Hon. Richard Jones, who now resides in the beautiful northern NSW hinterland behind Byron Bay. Jones has been an avid buyer and seller of Aboriginal artifacts since first arriving in Australia from the U.K. in 1965, as a 25 year old. This sale includes no less than 45 lots comprising 85 artifacts from his extensive collection. Though there is little of real distinction amongst them, all are fine pieces assembled by an enthusiast with a very good eye, and all carry reasonable expectations. Enthusiastic artifact collectors are intimately aware that the number of good pieces with age still available on the market is finite. Availability continues to shrink as awareness and demand increases. Pieces like these should be snapped up at the prices on offer.

The array of post 1980 paintings in this sale is disappointing. Amongst the most desirable is the cover work: a rather handsome and delightfully colourful work by Ginger Riley Mundawalalala created in 1989. Interestingly Riley did not begin to paint until 1988 and eight of his ten highest prices have been achieved for works painted prior to 1991 when his agent, Beverley Knight, held the first exhibition of his work in her own Alcaston gallery. His highest auction record to date is the $100,375 paid in 2002, with the remaining works in his top 10 results having achieved between $38,775 and $78,000. I consider this 113.5 x 166 cm untitled painting the equal of anything offered previously. It seems extremely well priced at $50,000-70,000.

Three works of similar size (120 x 150 cm), by Emily Kame Kngwarreye are all delightful and highly desirable. All carry Delmore provenance. Lot 10, an untitled work created in 1990, returns from the United States and therefore GST is payable on top of its hefty presale estimate of $120,000-180,000. Another, also returning from the USA and GST liable is estimated at $180,000-250,000 (Lot 56). The best value and most highly colour charged is Autumn Abundance 1992 (Lot 55). It is offered from a South Australian collection, at just $40,000-60,000.

US business leader and philanthropist Glenn Schaffer went on a spending spree at Sotheby’s July 2003 sale purchasing a swag of works including a number by Emily Kngwarreye, Mick Namarari, Turkey Tolson, Queenie McKenzie, Rover Thomas, and Kathleen Petyarre. Most, if not all, were reoffered for sale last year through Sotheby’s July 2009 sale and, while the majority sold within their estimates, four paintings failed to attract buyers on the night. It would be far from unfair to say that their failure is attributable to the fact that three of the four are not the best examples of these artists work. Queenie McKenzie’s Kimiyarriny (The White Mountain and Duncan Highway) 1993 is a poor painting by this great old artist. Yet carrying Waringarri Arts provenance it originally sold to Shaeffer in July 2003 for $47,500 including buyer’s premium. Having failed to sell last year when offered at $40,000-50,000, this 70 x 110 cm. canvas now appears with a presale estimate of $30,000-50,000.

Shaeffer paid a massive $279,000 for Massacre Site – Old Texas Downs 1991 in 2003. Though painted the year after Rover Thomas represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, it is an ordinary work lacking the earthy feel of his early ceremonial boards, or the grandeur of his best late career paintings. When offered with a generous 4-page spread in July 2009 it carried the highest presale estimate in the entire sale ($180,000-250,000). Now offered at $140,000 to $180,000 I would not be surprised to see it fail once more.

It should be said that there are very few, if any real bargains in this sale. Dealers are unlikely to bid in a market where cash remains king and there are plenty of collectors looking to pass on works of quality. And there is nothing of real distinction amongst the 40 odd Papunya and other acrylic paintings post 1980 other than those already mentioned. This is basically a tribal art sale in which only the faintest concession is made for any Aboriginal art created during the last 30 years. Sotheby’s may still be the market leader, but it risks loosing relevance and market share by continuing to favour ethnographic and tribal pieces. This preference discounts all but a very narrow band of artists who have created works post 1980 (a year in which the entire production of Aboriginal art totaled just $2.5 million, or less than 50th of annual production today).

Top Ten Works in Sale
[Lots 6, 7, 9, 10, 55, 56, 64, 72, 80, 100]

Lot 6 Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa, Untitled, 1971
Comment: One of this founding artists earliest works

Lot 7 Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Napaltjarri Dreaming, 1973
Comment: Rare early example by artist who shaped the movement post 1990

Lot 9 Eubena Nampitjin, Canning Stock Route, 1998
Comment: Large but lacks fluidity and general appeal

Lot 10 Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, 1990
Comment: very pleasing early work, with lovely textural qualities

Lot 55 Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Autumn Abundance, 1992
Comment: Luscious colours, great appeal, good exhibition history

Lot 56 Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Untitled, 1991
Comment: Great painting but overpriced in this market

Lot 64 Eubena Nampitjin, Kinyu, 2002
Comment: Excellent and attractive large work, priced to sell

Lot 72 Ginger Riley Mundawalawala, Untitled, 1989
Comment: early, remarkably handsome large work, Pizzi provenance

Lot 80 Yirawala, Kundaagi, Red Plains Kangaroo, 1962
Comment: Stunning totemic image, fine condition, highly collectable.

Lot 100 Yirawala, Maralaitj-The Mother of the North, c. 1965
Comment: Best painting in the sale for mine, splendid creation image

Eight Top Value Picks
[Lots 7, 55, 64, 153, 154, 155, 157, 191]

Lot 7 Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Napaltjarri Dreaming, 1973
Comment: Painted when youngest member of Bardon’s painting group
Bid: $20,000 hammer [Estimate $12,000-18,000]

Lot 55 Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Autumn Abundance, 1992
Comment: Great appeal and provenance, Worth $100K on a good day.
Bid: $80,000 hammer [Estimate $40,000-60,000]

Lot 64 Eubena Nampitjin, Kinyu, 2002
Comment: Best work by this artist in sale, large, well structured, great appeal
Bid: $30,000 hammer [Estimate $18,000-25,000]

Lot 153 Dorothy Napangardi Robinson, Sandhills, 2005
Comment: priced well below market value
Bid: $15,000 hammer [Estimate $6,000-8,000] GST applicable

Lot 154 Kathleen Petyarre, Thorny Devil Lizard, 1995
Comment: very nice work, excellent provenance
Bid: $10,000 hammer [Estimate $5,000-7,000]

Lot 155 Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Untitled, 1996
Comment: undervalued late career work
Bid: $35,000 hammer [Estimate $20,000-30,000]

Lot 157 Fred Grant, Untitled, 2002
Comment: very good small work by major Pitjantjatjarra artist
Bid: $4,000 hammer [Estimate $2,000-3,000]

Lot 191 David Malangi, Gumirringu Funeral Scene, 1970
Comment: iconic image used on $1 note, large fine bark
Bid: $12,000 hammer [Estimate $6,000-8,000]