RRare Clifford Possum Find Vital Ingredient in Mossgreen’s Italian Recipe for Success

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 18th August 2009

Dealer turned Mossgreen Tribal art specialist, Bill Evans, has just about figured out the correct recipe for success. Six months each year traveling Africa, the America’s and Europe visiting collectors and friends while his former Caspian Gallery site in Sydney’s Oxford Street provides a comfortable income. And six months trawling a network of dealers and private vendors built during 30 years in the trade here in Australia, as he prepares Mossgreen’s annual tribal art sale.

His relaxed lifestyle and streamlined approach to cataloguing, as well as Paul Sumner’s umbrella approach to working with largely independent specialists provides just enough incentive for specialists like Evans, to suit the current economic circumstances, as long as their sales generate sufficient income. 

In this Fine Early Aboriginal and Oceanic Art sale Evan’s has put together a more than reasonable $850,000 offering while containing costs through a modest catalogue, that includes only the first 50 lots, accompanied by a DVD with high resolution PDF images of the remainder. The sale does not attempt to take on market leaders.

Despite the lack of authoritative essays and scholarship there are enough highlights amongst the 248 lots to ensure that Mossgreen continues to engender goodwill and build an increasing tribal art following.

The majority of the best pieces are in the hardcover catalogue, adorned with the most exciting lots on its front and back covers. The stunning untitled ceremonial image by Clifford Possum Tjapaltrjarri on the front cover fell into Mossgreen’s lap after having resided in an Italian family’s Melbourne residence since bought by their ‘truckie’ father directly from the artist during the early 1970’s.

Clifford Possum was one of the founders of the western desert art movement and the first real independent Aboriginal art entrepreneur. The painting is an even more stunning find than the Kaapa Tjampitjinpa Budgerigar Dreaming 1971/2 bought in a Beamauris garage sale in 1981 for $10 and later sold through Lawson~Menzies  in November 2006 for $72,000.

Estimated at just $20,000 to $25,000 I expect this Clifford Possum work to soar and single handedly assist this sale to achieve close to 90% sales by value despite a far lower clearance by lots.  The work closely resembles the style of Tim Leura’s, A Joke Story, 1971 illustrated p284 in Geoffrey and James Bardon’s book Papunya, A Place made After the Story.

It is a pity Mossgreen didn’t pay to have it examined closely at the Ian Potter Centre before offering it for sale, especially as there are no references whatsoever to the item in any literature. Nevertheless, the artist’s style is unmistakable. It appears to have been a most extraordinary find and should sell for in excess of $100,000.

The sale has been significantly enhanced by works from the Tarlton Collection as well as the contents of an old tea chest discovered in Bundaberg, Northern Queensland, which contained amongst other treasures a large number of old Massim objects and several quality Aboriginal artifacts.

The tea chest really was a find. It contained a number of the most superb oceanic items in this sale. My personal picks are the fine Mutuaga seated figure (Lot 30), and the extremely rare and unusual southeastern Massim ridgepole ornament (Lot 38). Tarlton’s 19th century middle Sepik shield (Lot 32) is a most beautiful elegant large piece estimated at a very reasonable $10,000 to $12,000.

The Queensland businessman’s Aboriginal artifacts include the very fine Gulmari shield (Lot 4), the David Malangi Gurmuringu sculpture carrying a modest $5,000 to $6,000 estimate, and a Clifford Possum snake sculpture (Lot 25), estimated at less than a quarter of its value.

Three other pieces that impress are the quite wonderful, imposing, and powerful upper Sepik post figure from the collection of Barry Hoare estimated at $35,000 to 40,000 (Lot 40), the large fine 19th century Maori treasure box estimated at $65,000 to $70,000 (Lot 42) and the 19th century southeastern club (Lot 6) with remnants of British naval paint applied during the early colonial period.

I personally find the barks in this sale to be disappointing. Evan’s preference for western and central Arnhem barks over those of the north east relates to their closer affinity with cave painting yet most of the examples here are relatively pedestrian. Only the Yirawala bark Mimi Figures and Kangaroos c 1960 stands out.

Works of this size and quality by this major artist are generally estimated above $8,000 and a number of equal quality have sold for up to $26,000. Yet this immaculate example carries a presale estimate of just $4,000 to $6,000.

Other than the Clifford Possum board, the early Papunya works are also a little disappointing, as the majority have been seen at auction before. Johnny Warrangkula Tjupurrula’s Untitled 1971 painting was previously offered at Sotheby’s in July 2006 as Lot 75 but failed to find a buyer. The work was formerly owned by Bob Edwards when Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board in the early 1970’s.

Another Untitled 1973 by Charlie Tararu Tjungurrayi is a lovely piece and despite its recent history would be a very nice addition to any fine collection. After being offered by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000 in July 2005 and failing to sell, it achieved $23,400 when carrying a lower presale estimate of $8,000 to 12,000 two years later. The buyer would seem to have been a dealer as it reappears in this sale (Lot 24) carrying $22,000 to $25,000.

Bill Evans has been particularly keen to talk up the virtues of Lot12, yet another Untitled work, this time attributed to Long Jack Phillipus Tjapkamarra. Yet carrying a presale estimate of $20,000 to $25,000 this work appeares to have been overestimated in value. Only two works by Long Jack have ever sold in excess of $20,000 and these included the far more sophisticated and important Mala (Hare Wallaby) Dreaming 1972 sold by Sotheby’s in June 1998 after being exhibited and illustrated in the Lauraine Diggins’ catalogue A Myriad of Dreaming, and Medicine Story 1971 a particularly unusual and innovative work sold in 2001. If you were looking to pick it up after the sale my limit would be around $10,000 to $12,000.

Another recycled work is Lot 26, Untitled, 1994 by Kimberley master Rover Thomas. The work appeared as recently as June 2008 in Joel Fine Art’s last Melbourne sale and was subsequently advertised as having sold for $35,380.

Overall, despite the few reservations expressed above, Bill Evans has put together a solid tribal sale suited to the times, and it should be greeted by ethnographic collectors with a great deal of good will. While the number of untitled works, and the lack of scholarship is disappointing, it will do nothing to dampen the enthusiasm and speculation surrounding many of the works.

Most are keenly estimated and, as a result, there appear to be few bargains. This is not a dealer’s sale. However the dealers can be guaranteed to show a keen interest and turn out in force to support what is hoped will become an increasingly important fixture on the annual auction calendar.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

AIAM Rank 5 AIAM Rating 13.6954

Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa

AIAM Rank 21 AIAM Rating 5.8022
Untitled Central Australia by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Untitled Central Australia
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri 3

51 x 38 cm

Budgerigar Dreaming, c. 1971-72 by Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa
Budgerigar Dreaming, c. 1971-72
Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa

71 x 43 cm