RSotheby's Cleverly Positioned Aboriginal Art Sale Should Fit The Bill In Tough Art Market Conditions

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 5th July 2009

In 2008 Aboriginal art sales plummeted from $23.8 million to just $11.8 million and, if this current Sotheby’s catalogue is any indication, 2009 is likely to see the market shrink still further.

Seen in this context this current offering has been pitched in a very clever way indeed. With just 153 lots offered and a significant number of lots strategically estimated well below market value, Sotheby’s specialists will be confident that their clearance rates by value and volume are likely to be well above market estimations and send a reassuring message to their London board room.

The sale begins with the usual array of ‘exceptional’ ethnographic objects including a hooked boomerang from the South West corner of Queensland the like of which I haven’t seen before at auction. Actually calling it a boomerang may be stretching the meaning of the word as there is nothing of its like in any recorded private collections that I know of. It definitely looks to have age and is one of the most interesting pieces in the sale.

West Queensland Shield (Lot 4) gifted to Francis Tully at Quilpy in the early 20th century carries an optimistic estimate for today’s market despite its generous size. Given bean wood shields like this were made from South of Burketown down through Queensland, they are relatively common and there are far better objects one could buy for $8,000 to $10,000, despite the delicate decorative fluting that entirely covers both sides. 

However Lot 8 is an absolutely splendidly piece that should have no trouble exceeding its estimate.  This beautifully preserved large bicornual basket was undoubtedly created before the 1880's and is a truly great item. My only reservation would be that canny collectors should examine it closely for remnants of the original ochre design and request a detailed condition report before tilting their hat for it on the night.

While the following basket (Lot 10) appears to be in excellent condition, its form is far less pleasing and it is not nearly as old. The Queensland rainforest shields (Lots 7 and 9) have undergone degrees of repainting and many of the remaining artifacts, while nice examples, are relatively ubiquitous. Lot 11 for instance is an imperfect parrying shield, the like of which can still be bought elsewhere for prices significantly below Sotheby’s estimates.

Lot 16 is described as An Early and Rare Sea Turtle Hunting Charm and has been estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, in order, no doubt, to cash in on the tremendous interest in early Torres Strait Islander material. This is understandable given the collecting zeal of early anthropologists and missionaries and the resulting dearth of good early material in private hands.

The catalogue explains that the piece was part of a job lot from the Richard Berry Collection, which sold as recently as March this year at Young’s Auctions in Melbourne. To my knowledge, there is nothing like it in any of the literature or major collections despite Sotheby’s reference to illustrations in David Moore’s book on the collections of Alfred Cort Haddon. The small carving is incomplete, with the articulated flippers that would have been attached just below the neck and under the shell being missing.

Amongst the collection of bark paintings and Tiwi carvings on offer only the very early bark painting created in Arnhem Land prior to 1928 from the personal collection of Australian painter Hans Heysen strikes me as being distinctive and highly desirable, although there are three works by Yirawala of which Lot 26, a very nice depiction of Lumah Lumah is, in my opinion, the most advantageously priced.

Both Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Mawalan Marika are northeastern Arnhem Land artists of supreme eminence, and Lots 29 and 30 are both fine examples of their work. Marika’s Milky Way c1965 (Lot 30) is slightly larger but less intricately executed than the almost identical work sold by Sotheby’s in July 2005 for a hammer price of $22,000 and is estimated this time around at $20,000 to $30,000. However it carries a GST dagger indicating an extra 10% will be paid over the hammer price and buyers premium. Certainly the Munggurrawuy looks to me to be the better buy at $6,000 to $8,000.

Of the sculptures, the set of Owen Yalandja Yawk Yawk Mermaid Spirits (Lot 33) will prove to be the best buy in the years to come as these are beautifully realized and will always maintain their appeal.

There is an old adage in the auction business and it goes something like this. It takes two bidders to make an auction and six to make a great one. Persuading a vendor to put low estimates on good works is a risky tactic and one of the hardest things for an auctioneer to achieve; yet it can reap stunning rewards if handled well on the night. Ken Thompson and Pierre Marecaux are two very experienced collectors who both know a deal about the importance of a number of Kukatja artists who worked at Balgo Hills during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when they first began collecting works from this area. They continued to collect from the Warlayirti art centre, prominent galleries, and at auction until quite recently. A number of their finest pieces are included in this sale carrying estimates well below their market value and these are the most tempting works in the entire sale, despite the fact that a number of them have been through auction previously.

Take Lot 43 for example. The work was created by Sunfly Tjampitjin during the first year of the Warlayirti Art Centre when he was 71 years of age. First offered at Sotheby’s in 2000 as Two Women at Yatuaru, it carried an estimate of $8,000 to $12,000 and sold for a hammer price of $7,500. Thompson and Marecaux, purchased it from Lawson~Menzies in 2004 for $43,050, yet they have been prepared to put it up this time around with an estimate of just $10,000 to $15,000.

Similarly Ena Gimme Nungurrayi’s Mother’s Country, 1991 (Lot 44) sold for $5,750 in 1995 when estimated at just $2,000 to $3,000. The artist’s record, set in 2004, for a not dissimilar work of the same size from the Sam Barry Collection and Cooee Aboriginal Art Gallery, is  $42,800. If you've never heard of Ena Gimme you could be forgiven. She was Eubena Nampitjin’s most talented daughter but died young. Her works grace many public galleries but those in private hands are rare. Yet this lovely painting carries an estimate of just $7,000 to $10,000 in this sale.

The following Lot 45, created by Wimmitji Tjapangarti set a record of $9,200 when first offered in 1995 as Tjantji (Near Jupiter Well) 1991. A full 14 years later, with the artist’s current record price being $78,000 and no less than with 12 sales records standing over $20,000,  this particular result is now his 21st highest. You would have to think the painting would sell this time around for at least $30,000 to $50,000, yet Sotheby’s have estimated it in this sale at just $12,000 to $18,000.

And finally, although there are plenty of other examples, I could not fail to mention Lot 48, the Susie Bootja Bootja work entitled Kaningarra 1999 which set the artists current record at $43,050 when sold at Lawson~Menzies in 2004. It is unfortunate that the catalogue illustration does not show this work to its full advantage as it is an absolutely stunning painting that is being offered this time around for just $15,000 to $20,000.

It is hard to recall a mid year sale with so few major works valued above $80,000. The first of these is the large collaborative painting by Mona Chuguna and Jinny Bent of Mangklaja Arts in Fitzroy Crossing (Lot 59). Both of these artists participated in the major collaborative Ngurrara Canvas that sold for $212,000 after featuring on the cover of the Sotheby’s July 2003 catalogue.

However they were amongst the least important artists who accompanied a group of senior elders including Jimmy Pike, Peter Skipper, Spider Snell, Jimmy Nerremah and others. This work entitled Wayampajarti Area lacks the authority of the former work and is unlikely to achieve its $80,000 to $120,000 estimate with a 10% GST hike on top of the hammer.

The best of the early Papunya boards is the very nicely executed Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayai previously owned by Margaret Carnegie and later by Lauraine Diggins, which was included in the exhibition and illustrated catalogue A Myriad of Dreaming, in 1989. It would seem to be well priced at $90,000 to $120,000.

Mick Namarari’s Marnpi Rockhole  (Lot 87) was sold to American collector Glenn Schaeffer in 2004 for $82,750 and Sotheby’s are reoffering the same work this time around with an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000. Namarari was a most gifted artist who more than any other is credited with driving the Pintupi male aesthetic toward the optical abstraction that has come to characterize much Papunya Tula art since the early 1990’s.  As his works go however, this is one of his least interesting and accomplished.

The highlights of the sale are definitely the cover lot by early colonial artist William Barrak and the three works by Eastern Desert matriarch Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Works by Barrak are extremely rare. Only 15 have appeared at sale over the years and 11 of these have sold at prices up to $87,500. Sotheby’s last offered the one in this sale, which is illustrated on the cover of the catalogue, in 1998 when it sold for $74,000, currently the artist’s second highest price. Should it sell this time around for anywhere near its estimate of $180,000 to 250,000 it will propel the artist, who is currently the 48th most successful Aboriginal artist statistically, at least 10 places up this list.

By comparison all of the major works by Emily Kngwarreye (Lots 81, 91 and 110) carry reasonable prices given the quality of their execution. Lot 81 Awelye, sold previously at Sotheby’s in 2003 for its high estimate of $120,000. The buyer, once again, was American collector Glen Schaeffer, who had actually paid a total of $144,000 with the buyer’s premium. This time around is carries a very reasonable $120,000 to $180,000 presale estimate.

The following lot, Kame Colour (Lot 82), is a glorious painting that was exhibited throughout Victorian public galleries between 1999 and 2000, and the $60,000 to $80,000 estimate represents very good buying. And Lot 91, Arlatyeye 1991, is a cracker, which last sold at Sotheby’s as early as June 1995 with an estimate of just $12,000 to $18,000. If it sells anywhere near its $150,000 to $250,000 estimate this time around it should make the owner exceedingly happy. Yet it is worth every penny of that. Beautifully executed early works by Emily on this scale are rated amongst her very finest. 

On offer are three central Australian landscapes by Albert Namatjira yet these are far more expensive and, in my opinion, less expressive and tempting than the three previous lots by Otto Pareroultja (Lots 92,93 and 94). Pareroultja is utterly undervalued despite his having achieved a price of $84,000 in 2006 and $48,000 in 2007 for works that were not that much better than these. Priced between $7,000 and $15,000 they represent real bargains.

The highest priced work in the entire sale is the 1991 Rover Thomas work Massacre Site - Old Texas Downs that carries an estimate of just $180,000 to $250,000. Painted for Mary Macha, it was sold by Sotheby’s in June 2003 for $279,000. The work is aesthetically unappealing and, despite the wealth of information on the location and subject in the accompanying documentation, even carrying a lower estimate, it is hard to see this work generating a great degree of interest.

Overall, collectors who follow the market closely with a canny eye will be hoping that they can pick up a number of bargains in this smaller than usual mid year sale. Given the scrupulous and clever way in which Sotheby’s specialists have positioned estimates I would expect the sale to generate close to 100% by value even if the Rover Thomas and William Barrak were to fail to realise their ambitious expectations.

Only when the economy goes in to freefall can vendors be persuaded to lower their expectations in the way a number have been prepared to for this sale, and this would have been unthinkable even six months ago.  Whether this will be enough to generate the heat required in the auction room on the night only time will tell. It would certainly have stood a better chance of working had so many of the works not appeared at auction previously.

The sale is slightly less conservative and ethnographic than usual offerings from Sotheby’s and, as a result more closely reflects the primary market than has been the case for some time.  While less than half of the items bear Art Centre provenance, the majority of pieces predate the ‘market, or were produced for independent dealers or agents. With a mid year offering of this size and quality it could be that Sotheby’s believe the economy will strengthen in the second half of the year and are planning their major 2009 Aboriginal art sale for  October or November.

Marnpi Rockhole 1997 by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Marnpi Rockhole 1997
Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri 5

153 x 122.5 cm

Corroboree by William (King Billy) Barak
William (King Billy) Barak

60 x 75 cm

Kaningarra by Susie Bootja Bootja Napaljarri
Susie Bootja Bootja Napaljarri 1

120 x 80 cm