RRare Possum find spices up end of year Indigenous Art Calendar

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 5th October 2011

The last-second discovery of an extremely rare 1972 Clifford Possum board in New York, and the sale of the entire Paddy Bedford Estate, have set the scene for a fascinating end to the 2011 Aboriginal art calendar.

With Mossgreen absenting itself from Aboriginal art sales until 2012, and Deutscher and Hackett opting for a boutique exhibition of just 68 items at its South Yarra premises between the 11th and 22nd of October, only Sotheby’s and Bonham’s will hold end of year Indigenous art auctions. This will bring the total number of Tier One sales for the year to five, worth a total of $11-16 million*. The Deutscher and Hackett exhibition adds another $1 million to this total.  

Sotheby’s sally forth on the 18th of October with as neat 136 lot sale worth $1.8-2.6 million. And, in November, Bonham’s will reportedly show 26 works from Bedford's estate in London, New York and Melbourne, before selling them in conjunction with a broader indigenous art auction.

Sotheby’s D’lan Davidson was always going to be first out of the starting blocks. Encouraged by a 20% improvement in his results between November 2010 and June 2012 he had his catalogue designed and ready to go ahead of schedule when he took a last minute call from New York. To his delight he was offered a previously unknown 1972 Clifford Possum board that was painted almost back to back with the emblematic Emu Dreaming that sold at Sotheby’s in July 2005 for $411,750. Davidson could hardly believe his luck. A photographer was dispatched the next day and the new catalogue cover was rolling within 24 hours.

A find like this is rare. The painting was not known to exist having never appeared in the literature. It had been a gift to New York cousins from an Australian family member in 1975. A work such as this, if discovered in Australia, would certainly never be allowed to leave the country. However Davidson secured an export permit for the painting within 8 days of its discovery in America. This is certain to ensure intense international collector interest to rival private Australian collectors and institutions.

In another of those happy instances that light up the day of an auction specialist Davidson was approached several months earlier by an 83 year old Melbourne gentleman, Robert Rowland, who had a collection of artifacts he, and his wife Joan, had bought from the renowned tribal art dealer Jim Davidson (no relation to D’Lan) over a period of several decades. As he entered the house, a stones-throw from the Sotheby’s office, D’lan Davidson discovered bark paintings by Paddy Compass, Jimmy Midjawmidjaw, Naritjin Maymurru, and Mawalan Marika, amongst a tight collection of lovely old Aboriginal and oceanic artifacts. There was a lovely south-east Australian broad shield, a near perfect Queensland Gulmari Shield and rare oceanic pieces, including an exquisite New Caledonian Dagak Mask.  The mask in particular was an extraordinary example. Its features are more highly exaggerated and fluid than even the finest examples, such as that in the Metropolitan Museum.

This posed a problem for Davidson. Images of this, and several other high quality oceanic pieces, were sent to Sotheby’s International and readily accepted into its May 2012 tribal sale scheduled for New York. However this did not suit Rowland, who wanted his pieces sold immediately.

As a result this Sotheby’s sale includes nine oceanic pieces of which this mask and a large treasure box from the east coast of New Zealand are the most valuable. Though it failed to sell at Mossgreen in August 2009 (Lot 42) carrying $65,000-70,000 this treasure box is an exceptional example and, with Sotheby’s international reach, should sell at $60,000 to $80,000 this time around.

There are few recycled Aboriginal artworks in this sale and those included are works of quality. All carry modified prices that fall in line with current market expectations.  Among them Paddy Jaminji’s 1985 Dreamings of Bedford Downs is a very interesting and unusual complex of images. Carrying an estimate of $25,000-35,000 this demands attention, having sold previously at Sotheby’s in 2007 (Lot 78) for $36,000.

There are plenty of works of antiquity in this sale. However there are also a large number of works that are being brought to the secondary market with undue haste. Many of these paintings were bought by ‘investors’ between 2004 and 2007. Still more were purchased from exhibiting galleries since 2009. Amongst these are four good paintings from the Yulparija artists of Bidyadanga originally purchased from William Mora Gallery in 2007, being sold off by an anonymous US collector; a large and complex painting by Wingu Tingama, Nyapari 2006, purchased from Gabriella Roy in 2006; and another 11 Western Australia works all created post 2004 and sold through top exhibiting galleries during the last five years.  Of these the best works at the best prices are Lot 33, Tommy Watson’s Untju Alkata 2006 (153 x 203 cm), which carries a bargain low estimate of $60,000, and Daniel Walbidi’s Winpa 2007 estimated at $30,000 to $50,000.

While the works created for Papunya Tula post 2000 are all strong and fine representative paintings, those from the eastern desert in this sale have a more appealing contemporary edge. One extremely lovely work being sold at auction with unseemly haste is the Delmore provenanced Kathleen Ngal (Lot 42). This work was exhibited only 2 years ago at Metro Gallery in Melbourne. Measuring 213 x 152 cm Bush Plum Country (Lot 42) would be a wonderful buy at its low estimate of $20,000. And the magnificent Arlpara Country 2007 (Lot 45) by Kathleen’s younger sister Angelina Ngala, was a finalist in the AGNSW Wynne Prize. Sold through Coo-ee Gallery for $35,000 just 2 years ago it is offered in this sale at only $25,000-35,000.

Of the works by Emily Kngwarreye Lot 43 is a very fine and colourful Delmore Yam line work that previous sold at Deutscher~Menizes for $39,725. It is now estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. Another, originally sold by Holt family friend Robyn Purvis (premier provenance for an early Emily), is offered at $110,000-$160,000 having been in the same Queensland collection since originally purchased in the early 1990’s.

There are in fact too many fine paintings, artifacts and barks in this sale to single each out individually. It is a tight, well-weighted, eclectic, offering of generally high quality. In order to restrict the number of lots to just 136, Davidson has cleverly grouped together quality artifacts and Hermannsburg paintings in single lots. This is exemplified by the lovely group of 9 Pintupi shields (Lot 54), put together by a single owner over a period of 15 years (Est. $30,000-50,000); the same owner’s central desert boomerang collection (Lot 57) estimated at $8,000-10,000; the group of 5 lovely 1940’s barks returned from the USA which carry an estimate of $7,000-10,000; and the group of 36 Hermannsburg watercolours (Lot 136). This final lot of the night is expected to fetch $15,000-20,000 when the auction takes place in Sydney on the 18th of October.

Deutscher and Hackett have eschewed the hammer in favour of an exhibition to be held from October 11th to the 22nd at its Melbourne headquarters. Worth a total of $1 million it has many fine works but few highlights. Amongst them is the very good painting by Tiwi artist Kitty Kantilla that was included in the artist’s NGV retrospective. However it carries an astronomical and unrealistic price tag of $51,000. Paddy Bedford’s Mendoowoorji-Medicine Pocket, 2001 that D & H failed to sell in October 2010, is offered in this exhibition at $120,000 (the midpoint of its previous estimate range).

Patrick Oolodoodi Tjungerayi’s Nguarru, 2004 is large at 181.5 x 243.5 cm but probably overpriced at $85,000 in this market. The same can be said of Ginger Riley’s large work (184.5 x 224.0 cm) The Wet-My Mother’s Country, 1994. Though more than a dozen attempts have been made to sell Riley’s large canvases for more than $80,000 only one has succeeded.

Amongst the most alluring pieces, the lovely 1971 board by Long Jack Phillipus (Item 6) seems worth every bit of its $32,000 asking price. Two works by Emily Kngwarreye (Items 8 and 9) though not her  finest, are nonetheless very attractive and carry enticingly conservative prices, as does the lovely bark painting by Gulumbu Yunupingu (Item 22). D & H have deleted the price of works that have already sold from its web site and therefore it is difficult to know how much was actually paid for the excellent Purkitji 2003 (Item 37) by Boxer Milner and the very appealing Ngura Pulka 2005 (Item 2) by Tommy Watson.

The 4.5 metre long five-panel piece by Emily Kngwarreye appears over priced in this market at $185,000. At first glance avid collectors would be forgiven for thinking it was created by that other Utopia artist who painted in her late 70’s, the late, Minnie Pwerle. Most of these works are overpriced by a good 20% though there are a number of bargains to be sure. No less than thirty-three works (or half the exhibition) are pieces worth $8,000 or less, and many are very reasonably priced, nice examples, by important artists.

Finally, though Bonham’s is yet to publish its November catalogue, it has already been widely reported that it has consigned the remaining 26 works from Paddy Bedford's estate, for its indigenous art auction in November. An offering of a single artist’s work on this scale defies conventional wisdom yet if any one can pull it off it will be Tim Klingender. He and his team have proven more than once that this can work exceedingly well; the John McCaffrey Collection of works predominately by Wattie Karruwara and Jack Wherra is but one case in point. Since the artist’s death in 2009, the Bedford estate has been handled by Melbourne gallerist William Mora. One can only surmise that with the demise of the art centre that supported Bedford throughout his life (Jirruwun), the heirs to the estate are keen to realize the value of Bedford’s legacy as quickly as possible.

One interesting fact that only the most observant will have noticed. Sotheby’s and Deutscher and Hackett have finally wised up and extended their acceptable provenance to include Agathon Gallery for Tommy Watson’s work and Sotheby's has also included Dacou Gallery works by Emily Kngwarreye for the first time. At last a modicum of common sense has begun to overcome the politically expedient.

* assuming Bonham’s end of year sale is worth $2-3 million as expected

Adrian Newstead welcomes enquires and/or comments about this article

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

AIAM Rank 5 AIAM Rating 13.6954

Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford

AIAM Rank 6 AIAM Rating 11.7530
Untitled (Emu Corroboree) by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Untitled (Emu Corroboree) - 1972
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri 3

51 x 35 cm

Untitled by Paddy Compass Namatbara
Untitled - C.1958
Paddy Compass Namatbara 1

61 x 26 cm

Untitled by Narritjin Maymuru
Untitled - 1963
Narritjin Maymuru

39.5 x 20 cm

Nyapari by Wingu Tingima
Nyapari - 2006
Wingu Tingima

203 x 144 cm

Untju Alkata by Tommy (Yannima) Watson
Untju Alkata - 2006
Tommy (Yannima) Watson 6

153 x 203 cm

Winpa by Daniel Walbidi
Winpa - 2007
Daniel Walbidi 1

201 x 137 cm

Man's Love Story by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Man's Love Story
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri 3

184 x 457 cm

Untitled - Dreamings on Bedford Downs by Paddy (Jampin) Jaminji
Untitled - Dreamings on Bedford Downs
Paddy (Jampin) Jaminji 2

89.5 x 152.5 cm