RTwo Paris auction houses offer Aboriginal Art in May

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 10th May 2011

Two auctions of Aboriginal art will be held in Paris auctions during the second week of May. The first will be the first for auction house Cornette de Saint Cyr. It will comprise works entirely from the Arnaud Serval collection and is to be held at the Drouot Montaigne on the 9th May 2011. The other is a mixed bag put together by specialist Marc Yvonnou for Gaia Auctions at the Quartier Drouot on the 14th.

Billed as the largest auction sale of Aboriginal art ever offered in the northern hemisphere Art Contemporain Aborigene d’Australie, is essentially a single vendor sale put together by Paris based indigenous and tribal art specialist Luc Berthier for the up-and-coming auction house Cornette de Saint Cyr. It comprises 124 lots valued at EUR 502,000 to EUR 642,800 ($AUD680, 200 to $871, 000) drawn from the extensive collection (comprising more than 2000 canvas paintings, barks, sculptures and sacred objects) of Swiss collector and art entrepreneur Arnaud Serval.

From the age of 19 Serval was the quintessential European adventurer, driven by the desire to seek out the Aborigines after becoming enthralled with their myths and legends. The son of a well-known Paris art dealer, Serval began visiting Australia in the early 1990’s and purchased the majority of the artworks in his collection directly from the artists he spent time with in the field. For more than a decade he lived for several months each year in the central and western deserts and in the Kimberley region. During this time he purchased works directly from Clifford Possum, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Barney Campbell, Timmy Payungka, Billy Stockman, Gloria Petyarre, and other influential desert artists, as well as Kimberley artists Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie.

Amongst the works in this 124 lot sale 48 were purchased directly from the artists. However there are many that were bought from art centres including 13 from Warlayirti Artists at Balgo Hills, 10 from Papunya Tula, 9 from Maningrida, 10 from Buku Larrngay Mulka at Yirrkala, and others from the art centres in Warmun, Elcho Island, Ramingining, Utopia and Fitzroy Crossing.

The items in this selection are varied, but contain few of the masterpieces that Serval has accumulated over more than two decades. His personal collection is reputed to contain up to 5000 artworks and includes rare barks and boards, a large sound and vision archive, unpublished documents and a definitive reference library. Apart from his passion for collecting in the field, Serval has been a prodigious buyer at auction yet only 4 works purchased at Sotheby’s and one at Deutscher~Menzies appear in a sale overwhelmingly comprised of low value items.

The catalogue is lavishly illustrated and extremely well documented-far more so than would be the case with a sale of this value in Australia. However the vendor is wealthy and this sale should be seen as the first step in a strategy designed to build collector interest in Europe. In this regard Serval and his expert Luc Berthier are visionaries. Pierre Cornette de Saint Cyr is committed to building the secondary market for Aboriginal art in Europe and with Serval’s voluminous collection to draw upon other major collectors will surely follow.

The sale has been weighted just about perfectly given the results of Paris Aboriginal art auctions over the past 3 years. Fifty six percent of the value is in 26 lots (21% of volume). This leaves plenty of good quality items at reasonable prices for first time collectors who will be attracted to purchasing from a European sale in preference to Australia, given the bullish Aussie dollar. Eleven lots (9%) of items are estimated below EUR1000 while 68% fall between EUR1000 and EUR5000. Twenty lots are estimated at between EUR5000 and EUR10,000 with only 9 lots above-the highest being the cover lot by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (Lot 11) and a work by Emily Kngwarreye (lot 29) both of which are offered at EUR30,000 to EUR40,000.

Yvonnou’s Gaia sale is quite a different story. Worth EUR381,550 to EUR453,250, with 20 percent of the lots comprising 66% of the value, no less than 9 lots of 80 carry estimates in excess of EUR10,000 with 3 exceeding EUR20,000.

The highest value lot in this sale is a work by senior Warlpiri artist Judy Napangardi Watson. Illustrated on the cover of the catalogue it measures 200 x 394 cm and is estimated at a hefty EUR70,000 to EUR80,000. In fact, no less than 3 of the 9 major works are by this artist. The best of the other major works include the large and attractive Fire Dreaming by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (Lot 9) estimated at EUR18,000 to EUR20,000; a very accomplished 140 cm square work by Kathleen Petyarre carrying EUR15,000 to EUR20,000 and a poor late career black and white canvas by Makinti Napanangka valued at EUR20,000 to EUR25,000. There are several strong works by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, and the quality of these exceeds those in the sale of Serval’s works. Odd, as this is one artist with whom he spent a great deal of time over the years.

In fact, of those artists with whom Serval had the strongest personal links only Ronnie Tjampitjinpa is well represented in the sale. His major Tingari Dreaming, which adorns the cover of the catalogue, is an impressive and reasonably priced large work (239 x 178 cm). Of the others the standout is a delicately coloured Tingari Dreaming (Lot 9) estimated at EUR7000 to EUR9000. The same could not be said of the three works by Clifford Possum. Given Serval’s substantial holdings by this artist these pieces are unremarkable. And, surprisingly not one single work by Rover Thomas appears in the sale. Yet the major work by Billy Stockman (Lot 80) is one of the finest examples I have ever seen.

Emily Kngwarreye’s My Country 1993, is a delightful, large, and colourful piece (Lot 29). It is a fine example of the artist’s transition from cosmic cloud-like imagery to the line-work she developed during the second half of her short 7-year career. The work was purchased directly from the artist’s niece Barbara Weir, the mother of Fred Torres, owner of Dacou Gallery. It is one of only two works valued at more than EUR30,000.

The Serval offering includes a number of bark paintings and hollow logs from Arnhem Land. By far the most impressive of these are the two sculptures by Gulumbu Yunupingu, while two bark paintings by this artist are superb and very reasonably priced. There are, in fact, many delightful small barks in the sale. Another standout is a lovely small work by Nanyin Maymura (1918-1969) (Lot 57) which carries wonderful provenance and is estimated at just EUR700 to EUR900.  It was illustrated in the touring catalogue of the 1974-1976 landmark exhibition Art of Aboriginal Australia, the earliest Australia Council touring exhibition to Canada, sponsored by Rothman’s of Pall Mall.

Other works worthy of mention are Queenie McKenzie’s, Table Top, 1995  (Lot 64), a very fine piece that is well worth the pre-sale estimate of EUR15 000 to EUR20 000: an interesting small work by Denis Nelson Tjakamarra (Lot 74), the much under-appreciated son of Papunya founder Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula; and a lovely 122 x 122 cm work by Brandy Tjungurayai carrying Papunya Tula provenance and valued at only EUR3500 to EUR4500.

With a dearth of touring exhibitions in Europe and North America since the GFC, the birth of an international secondary market for Aboriginal art is the most significant contemporary development in the promotion of the movement. For this reason alone, industry insiders will be observing the results of these two sales carefully. Concurrent with the Cornette de Saint Cyr sale, Arnaud Serval launched Carry On I Art Aborigene, an exhibition space on the shores of Lake Geneva to permanently display works from his collection. Its opening exhibition Tingari & Mimi took place on the 12th of April 2011 and was attended by influential European collectors and dealers, as well as Melbourne gallerist William Mora, who has been living in Paris since Christmas.
Links to Catalogues http://www.cornette.auction.fr/