RTwo Collections Provide Over Half the Items for Sotheby's Aboriginal Art Sale

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 10th November 2009

Sotheby’s November Aboriginal and Oceanic Art offering may be a mixed vendor sale but its success depends largely on the fortunes of two quite disparate collections. In an auction with just 177 lots, no less than 40 paintings are being deaccessioned from Trevor Chappell’s Austcorp Group Collection, and 95 bark paintings comprising 59 individual lots represent the original collection of William Mc.E Miller Jr. which has been returned to Australia for sale after long term loan to the Andrew Mellon Library in Wallingford, Connecticut , USA. The remainder of the sale includes 9 Tiwi carvings from the heirs of Chicago collector Dr. Allan Solem, a number of Papunya Paintings including 3 early 1980’s canvases by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri from artist Tim Johnson’s parents estate, fleshed out with a number of scattered offerings from various private vendors. The sale is valued at $2.5 million on low estimates.

American William McE. Miller Jnr. visited Australia first in 1961 where his interest in Aboriginal art was stimulated by a visit to the Church Missionary Society shop in Sydney. Between 1964 and 1968 he went on to purchase bark paintings and artifacts originally sourced from artists at mission stations in Oenpelli and Groote Eylandt and these were subsequently exhibited widely in the USA between 1965 and 1973 before being held on loan to the Taylor Museum in Colorado and later the Andrew Melon Library in Wallingford, Connecticut.

As a collection they make an interesting ‘snapshot in time’ of the bark painters of the 1960’s. Documentation was not good at the time and despite care on the part of Sotheby’s specialists there are certainly several that are wrongly attributed. Most would have been purchased for less than $300 in the 1960’s and apart from a small number of individual works these are not pieces of great distinction. What Happens to a Man After He Dies on Groote Eylandt (Lot 25) is an example in point.  It comprises 17 small individual paintings that would be of only minor interest, were it not for the fact that they can be viewed as a cartoon strip narrative relating the story of  indicated by the title.  Individually each painting is currently worth no more than $1500 yet the set is optimistically estimated at $70,000 - $100,000. The set of 5 circular barks, Spirit of Dreaming (Lot 28) by Groote artists Kneepad Jabarrgwa and Abadjura Amagula represent much better buying at $10,000-$15,000.

Of the William Miller barks, and those from other vendors, the most interesting are the ceremonial image by Dick Nguleingulie, A Burial Ceremony, (Lot 18) that is illustrated on the catalogue cover, and Bobby Nganjmirra’s undated Sacred and Secret Kunapipi Ceremony (Lot 47).

With no less than 5 barks by Yirawala the most striking is the image of the giant cannibal Jungarbar (Lot 49), while those representing the best value are Rainbow Serpent with Eggs (Lot 52) and my personal favorite Waterholes (Lot 53).

The Austcorp collection included two of the four early Papunya Boards that appear in this sale of which two are accompanied by photographs of the works stacked on, and under, the workbench of the so called ‘Great Painting Room’ in 1972. Interestingly, by the end of that year there were literally hundreds of works like these stacked along the walls and down the hallway of the nascent art centre in Papunya, even though the prices being charged for these works at the time were no more than $20 to $45 each.

The entire painting enterprise was in complete disorder and at the point of being closed down, yet, faced with Geoff Bardon’s sudden departure from the community, Peter Fannin set about the task of recording every work and dealing with the huge backlog of undocumented paintings. Of the four in this sale none really impress. Despite their iconic imagery neither the Long Jack Phillipus Women's Dreaming Ceremony (Lots 540 nor the Shorty Lungkata Children's Story (Lots 55) exhibit the dynamism of the best works from the period, while the Yala Yala Gibbs, Old Man's (Yina) Dreaming  (Lot 77) is generic, and the Johnny Warangkula Water and Tucker (Lot 78) is unfocussed and unresolved.

Shorty Lungkata’s Children’s Story 1972 is now being offered for the third time at Sotheby’s having failed to sell publicly in both their July 2005 and October 2006 sales (Lots 79 and 30 respectively). The painting carried an estimate of $80,000-$120,000 in 2005 and just $30,000 - $50,000 in 2006. This time around its indicative value is an optimistic $50,000-$70,000.

From 2003 onward, art consultant Barbara Flynn assisted Trevor Chappell to build a fine Indigenous and contemporary art collection, which was installed throughout the Australia-wide offices of the Austcorp Group. 

In August this year Sotheby’s sold a large number of their works by emerging and contemporary artists and this latest sale includes their Aboriginal collection.

By far the most significant and newsworthy of these is Kukutjara 2003 (Lot 71), by an artist who, more than any other, has defined the primary market for Aboriginal art post 2000. Pitjantjatjarra elder Tommy Watson’s status grew exponentially largely as a creation of the auction industry.  It was, in fact, largely due to the sale of this particular canvas measuring 140 x 177 cm that featured on the cover of the widely distributed catalogue for the community fund raising auction at Cromwell’s, held to finance the employment of an art coordinator in Wingelina in 2003.

After the work was purchased for $36,300 on behalf of Austcorp, news spread instantly on the bush telegraph and, from that time forward, demand for Watson’s paintings outstripped supply despite a sharp spike in his prices. This historically important work is being offered by Sotheby’s at $80,000 - $120,000. As with all items being de-accessioned from corporate collections GST is applicable thereby adding 30% (buyers premium included) to the winning hammer price.

To my mind, the quality of the Austcorp Indigenous art collection could have benefited from collaboration with a specialist in this field at the time it was being formed. It is overly weighted with good but generic Papunya works, mediocre barks and poorly chosen examples by name artists including Kitty Kantilla, Gloria Petyarre, Dorothy Napangardi Robinson, Elizabeth Nyumi and others.

The exceptions are the very fine bark by John Mawurndjul's Mardayin at Dilebang (Lot 93) and the quite lovely Clifford Possum Kerrinyarra (Lot 87), which carries a ludicrously low estimate of just $25,000 to $30,000. In this regard Sotheby’s specialists have once more allowed their prejudice against this important artist’s post 1985 works to cloud their judgment and undermine the value of dedicated collector’s holdings. Even in the worst of times this painting is worth a minimum of double its high presale estimate in this sale.

Other than the majestic Warlurkulong Dreaming, 1977 that sold to the National Gallery of Australia for $2.4 million in 2007 Sotheby’s have consistently undervalued works by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Five appear in this sale of which four have extensive impressive exhibition records, having been included in either the artist’s solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (1988) or the Australian retrospective (2003-2004). They include a wooden snake sculpture created in 1973, Cheeky Snake, (Lot 56) worth twice its low estimate, and a work that, is attributed as a collaboration with Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa, Witchetty Grub Dreaming at Alyukari  (Lot 59) that would be a steal if sold within its presale estimate of $20,000-30,000. All were originally purchased by Tim and Vivien Johnson from Papunya Tula artists and given to his parents, from whose estate they are being offered.

If the odd estimates for these works weren’t enough to confuse collectors those by Emily Kngwarreye that follow in succession between lots 61 and 64 are certain to do so. Both Kame Awelye, 1996 (Lot 63) and Kame Colour, 1995 (Lot 64) are worth at least twice their high estimates even in these depressed economic conditions, while the first of the two early works returned from Maryland USA is estimated under, and the second over, their true market values.

The most valuable work in the sale appears without the usual fanfare and excitement that is built through the gradual increase of value of preceding lots. Rover Thomas’ Untitled (The Serpents Juntarkal and Wungurr) 1987 (Lot 67) bears all the hallmarks of the ethnographic works that Sotheby’s hold in such high esteem. It was however painted by the artist when revisiting earlier imagery used in the ceremonial boards created almost a decade previously. Despite the Mary Macha provenance, it is an unattractive work in poor condition and is unlikely to sell at the presale estimate of $250,000 to $350,000.

The following lot is also by Thomas. Snake Dreaming in Joondagal Country, 1990  (Lot 68) is estimated at $50,000-70,000 and would seem good buying despite its rough and ready execution. It was last offered through Sotheby’s in July 2007 carrying an estimate of, wait for it,  $150,000-200,000 (Lot 133) yet I expect it to fail again due to the image’s lack of interest.

With a huge International catchment to draw upon for sales that are generally the highlight of the Australian Indigenous auction calendar, collectors expect Sotheby’s to offer fine ethnographic pieces and paintings by seminal artists with impeccable provenance. In an extremely helpful move, items such as the exceptional Broad Shield (Lot 1) sourced in New York and a number of other valuable objects are pleasingly illustrated in the catalogue with generous illustrations of both the front and back view.

Paintings by William Barak rarely appear at auction and the Untitled Lot 5 is the second that Sotheby’s have managed to source this year. Having achieved the sixth highest price ever paid for an Aboriginal artwork when an untitled work on paper by Barak sold for $512,500 in their July 2009 sale, the $60,000 - $80,000 presale estimate on the work in this sale would seem justified, especially given that it is relatively large. Still, it is far from the artist’s finest.

The auction contains just 15 lots from Oceania of which the 19th century western Solomon Island Warrior Figure (Lot 122) collected by the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and the Canoe Prow (Lot 113) originally from the collection of the British commissioner of the Solomon Islands, William Sydney Marchant, are the most important and impressive. Bernhart’s warrior figure was collected during her tour of New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific and is accompanied with its original label written with a quill in 1891.

When it comes to presenting quality artworks during the past decade none have done it better than Sotheby’s. However when considered along with their lackluster mid year sale, this latest Aboriginal and Oceanic art offering, clearly indicates a department that is resting on its laurels and running out of steam.

Certainly there are many fine pieces that are priced to suit the market in this sale, however the catalogue as a whole fails to create the sense of expectation or theatre that one has come to associate with the Sotheby’s brand. Individual pieces are arranged throughout the catalogue without any creative input in the placement of works, an attempt to build tempo, or create cadence; and works by well-known artists run consecutively rather than being placed with a curatorial eye throughout the offering. When this is added to its strong ethnographic focus, this conservative offering smacks of tiredness and an inability, or lack of interest, in generating excitement. This is Sotheby’s last sale under its old management.   The new owner would do well to look at his uninspired Aboriginal Art Department and give it a good shake.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

AIAM Rank 1 AIAM Rating 37.3548

Rover (Julama) Thomas

AIAM Rank 2 AIAM Rating 24.5084

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

AIAM Rank 5 AIAM Rating 13.6954

David Yirawala

AIAM Rank 45 AIAM Rating 3.8086

John Mawurndjul

AIAM Rank 37 AIAM Rating 4.3157

William (King Billy) Barak

AIAM Rank 9 AIAM Rating 8.6923
Kame Colour, 1995 by Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Kame Colour, 1995
Emily Kame Kngwarreye 12

90 x 150 cm

What Happens to a Man After He Dies on Groote Eylandt by Thomas Nandjiwarra Amagula
What Happens to a Man After He Dies on Groote Eylandt
Thomas Nandjiwarra Amagula

?? cm