RSotheby’s Aboriginal Art Specialist Plays to his Strength

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 23rd May 2011

The catalogue is everything one would expect of a top rate Sotheby’s sale. High quality artifacts and carvings, old bark paintings, early western desert boards, Papunya Tula acrylic paintings, and Hermannsburg watercolours abound. These in fact constitute 129 lots, or 73% of this 176-lot offering. Ninety-one items  (52%) were created prior to 1980 while only twenty-four (14%) were created post 2000.

Specialist D’Lan Davidson has clearly played to his strength, by drawing upon his considerable international contacts in the tribal art world. The sale begins with an array of fine east coast shields and Queensland artifacts. Though the early Papunya boards are not as spectacular as those offered (unsuccessfully) by Deutscher and Hackett in May, they are solid and reasonably estimated. Many were previously included in the collection of peripatetic dealer Patrick Corbally Staunton and included in his book Songlines and Dreamings published in London in 1996. Corbally Staunton died shortly after its publication in a light plane crash.

Sotheby’s have taken a far more cautious approach to the market in this sale to Deutscher and Hackett, whose hubris saw them offer 15 works worth $1.45 million* amongst the first 40 lots. Of these 8 carried estimates in excess of $100,000. Yet only 5 of these 15 works sold for a total of $499,200.

There is only one single work in this sale valued over $100,000  (Paddy Bedford’s Biriyalji-Fish Hole 2006 estimated at $100,000-150,000, illustrated on the cover of the catalogue). Other than this, the highest value works in the first 50 lots are 10 items carrying low estimates between $40,000 and $50,000.  Another 4 appear between lots 51 and 100, while a further 4 fall in the final half of the sale.

Good auctions are a form of theatre during which the cadence in values throughout, raises and lowers audience expectations before and after a climax. However, with a dearth of high value lots, Davidson has grouped each lot according to type and/or artist. This is likely to have been a bad error of judgment on his part.

There are many nice works in this sale but I suspect that his major success will be with the barks and artifacts (Deutscher and Hackett sold 64%, the best result for any asset class in its sale).  There are 86 lots in this Sotheby’s sale carrying estimates under $10,000 and these should sell well given their quality and price. The real test will come with the success or failure of the 71 lots carrying estimates between $10,000 and $50,000. Though there are many very good works here, a significant number have been overestimated by up to 30% given the current state of the market.

In my opinion, one of the finest works in this sale is Maggie Watson’s delightful Snake Vine Dreaming 1992 (Lot 39). Watson created the work early in her career and it exhibits the innovative individual striated bands of dotting that she created prior to loosing dexterity. Leter she developed the more familiar dragged dotting technique that has been followed by her successors (including her younger sister Judy Napangardi Watson). This particular painting was commissioned by Margo Stanislawska-Birnberg, during the time she spent researching and writing Aboriginal Artists- Dictionary of Biographies, now a standard reference on the subject.

Paddy Bedford’s Police Rockhole 2002 (Lot 94) is a strong emblematic work that has been priced to sell, as has Queenie McKenzie’s delightful painting Saint George and Manly-The finalists (Lot 95). The later work was created after McKenzie watched the Rugby League grand final in 1996. The players in their jumpers are seen on a grid flanked by hills in front of stands of spectators all depicted in the artist’s unmistakable east Kimberley style.

The three works by Emily Kngwarreye in this sale are attractive and well priced. The most interesting (My Country 1991) was exhibited at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford Connecticut in 1994. It was commissioned by Rodney Gooch and formerly belonged to Mary Reid Brunstrom, the agent for Utopia Art in the USA during and after the Asia Society Dreamings Exhibition in New York.

The sale, to be held in Melbourne on the 7th of June 2011, is valued at $2,323,400 – 3,056,500. Just as was the case with the Deutscher and Hackett offering in May, it is over-encumbered by Papunya Tula paintings. Though this should cost it dearly, there are sufficient items of excellent quality and provenance in this Sotheby’s sale for it to deserve success.