RBonham’s Fail in Bid to Fire Up Aboriginal Art World

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 30th June 2011

It was expected to ignite collector interest, but Bonham’s first Aboriginal art auction on June 28th disappointed an almost all counts.  Specialists Francesca Cavazzini, Greer Adams and Tim Klingender had more than a year to prepare for the launch of their new department. Yet they offered an underwhelming catalogue that was overburdened with uninspiring and recycled works.  The new Bonham’s Australia Chairman, Mark Frazer, delivered the sale to a room of just 60 people.  By night’s end they had achieved $893,820 including BP. Not one painting sold for more than $100,000 though 5 sold between $60,000 and $81,600.  The final result? - just 42% by value and 47% by volume.

Bonham’s cannot make a profit by putting on sales of this value. By restricting the number of lots to 145 and leaning on vendors to offer their works at low estimates they expected an 80% plus sale rate. Only this would be a solid platform upon which to build future sales worth considerably more than $3 million. There is no escaping the fact that this gamble failed. In the currently depressed Australian market for ‘collectables’ only FRESH work can ignite buyer interest. This was proved in spades by Sotheby’s the previous night when it offered a genuine disbursal jewellery sale, promoted through good coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald. The room was packed. Important jewels worth $2.62 million changed hands with sales figures of a staggering 122% by value (including a new Australian sales record) and 79% by volume.

The Aboriginal sale began well enough with 16 lots of the first 20 finding buyers. However time and time again throughout the sale, vendors lost money or failed to move their paintings on. Lot 12, a strong and accomplished work by Jack Britten that had sold at Sotheby’s in July 2004 for $49,850 achieved $37,200 this time around. Rover Thomas’s Untitled Rainbow Serpent (Lot 13) had sold at Sotheby’s in July 2001 for $87,500 but this time achieved only $72,000 incl buyers premium. Rover’s Yillimbiddi Country (Lot 15), which had previously sold for $35,380 at Joel’s Fine Art in June 2008, was passed in. Uta Uta Tjangala’s early board sold for only $21,600 while an early Johnny Warrangkula’s board, which had previously achieved $36,800, sold for $42,000. However, if the buyers premium and vendors commission are deducted the vendor once again made a substantial loss.

Even the fresh and highly attractive work by Paddy Bedford (Lot 16) that was expected to excite sold at its low estimate of $60,000, thereby recording $72,000 including buyers premium.

The greatest successes were the results for the collection of 10 bark paintings by Western Arnhem Land master Bobby Barrdjaray Ngainjmirra that had stood out amongst the offerings.  It sold for $60,000.   And the collaborative western desert painting by Carol Golding and others was a beautiful work that carried an extremely ambitious estimate of  $50,000-80,000. Nevertheless it too achieved $60,000, justifying Klingender’s faith in what he obviously considered a masterpiece.  This was the one work in the entire sale that played to a new paradigm in which the conservative past was rejected for new and exciting work.

All of John Mawaurdjurl’s works failed in this sale including his 157 x 66 cm bark Mardayin at Kakodebuidi, owned by Colin and Elizabeth Laverty, who were both obviously disappointed observers in the room.   The 195 x 465 cm black and white work by Gloria Petyarre (Lot 38) was an absolute steal at $36,000; it was but one of  dozens of others sold at bargain prices.

Three works were estimated in excess of $100,000 and their sale was considered vital if this sale was to be seen as successful. The major Papunya work by Ningura Napurrula (Lot 82) offered at $150,000 to $200,000 did not inspire a bid.  Booralbun, The 90 x 60 cm canvas by Rover Thomas had sold previously at Sotheby’s in 1999 for $52,900 This time around, in very quiet and pensive market it carried an extremely ambitious estimate of $100,000-120,000 but sold on the night for $81,600. And the aesthetically challenging Juntarkal Rainbow Serpent (Lot 56) which had sold previously at Sotheby’s in April 1999 for $147,375 was passed in.

This sale was the last of the first round of Aboriginal art sales for 2011. The results are now in. Sales during the first half of 2011 have totaled $4,234 million. There is absolutely no point in mincing words.  Should the end of year results match these, Aboriginal art sales at auction will drop to $8.5 million this year. This will be the worst result since 2002 when Sotheby’s all but had the market to itself.

Whether it will get any worse or not before it trends upward once more will depend on each of the auction houses maintaining their resolve to hold two sales annually.  In the absence of strong overseas interest due to the bullish Australian dollar, any reduction in the number of sales could see the market fall to just $7 million in 2012.

Unfortunately, all 3 auction houses have Aboriginal art departments that play to exactly the same tune. By catering to the power elites they play to an old paradigm. All offer the status quo to an aging clientele. Evidence of their innate conservatism and lack of verve is seen everywhere as they continue to undervalue and overlook exciting fresh works that would excite a new generation of collectors.  

To glimpse the future all would do well to take a look at the fresh and exciting way in which auctions are being presented by a true 21st century auction house -New Zealand’s Art and Object. Real inspiration is only as far away as our antipodean neighbors.


Rover (Julama) Thomas

AIAM Rank 2 AIAM Rating 24.5084

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula

AIAM Rank 10 AIAM Rating 8.4631

Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford

AIAM Rank 6 AIAM Rating 11.7530

Gloria Tamerre Petyarre

AIAM Rank 7 AIAM Rating 9.8054

Uta Uta Tjangala

AIAM Rank 22 AIAM Rating 5.7886

Jack Britten

AIAM Rank 46 AIAM Rating 3.6490

Ningura Gibson Napurrula

AIAM Rank 41 AIAM Rating 4.0463
Untitled (Rainbow Serpent) by Rover (Julama) Thomas
Untitled (Rainbow Serpent) - c. 1986
Rover (Julama) Thomas 9

92 x 87 cm

Yillimbiddi Country  by Rover (Julama) Thomas
Yillimbiddi Country - 1989
Rover (Julama) Thomas 9

90 x 120 cm

Man Growing Old, Balls Going Walkabout (Medicine Story)  by Uta Uta Tjangala
Man Growing Old, Balls Going Walkabout (Medicine Story) - 1971
Uta Uta Tjangala

47 x 25 cm

Untitled (Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa)  by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula
Untitled (Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa) - 1971
Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula

59 x 28 cm

Untitled (Women at Ngaminya)  by Ningura Gibson Napurrula
Untitled (Women at Ngaminya) - 2005
Ningura Gibson Napurrula

210 x 280 cm

Juntarkal Rainbow Serpent  by Rover (Julama) Thomas
Juntarkal Rainbow Serpent - 1985
Rover (Julama) Thomas 9

60 x 122 cm

Gernawarliyan (Camel Gap)  by Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford
Gernawarliyan (Camel Gap) - 1922-2007
Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford 2

135 x 122 cm

Awelye  by Gloria Tamerre Petyarre
Awelye - 1997
Gloria Tamerre Petyarre 11

185 x 465 cm

Booralbun  by Rover (Julama) Thomas
Booralbun - 1986
Rover (Julama) Thomas 9

60 x 90 cm

The Bungle Bungles 1990 by Jack Britten
The Bungle Bungles 1990
Jack Britten 9

100 x 118.5 cm