RP is for Passion, P is for Pass

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 28th October 2011

In the Sydney Morning Herald several days after fSotheby’s Important Aboriginal and Oceanic Art sale on October 18th, Wendy Frew’s summary was headlined Passion for Aboriginal work fails to Ignite. Her subs had been kind. Passion was an element in very short supply.

Sotheby’s sold only 54 of 136 lots (40% by volume) worth a total of $991,243 including buyer’s premium (49% by value on low estimates). A week later it had lifted the sales to 42% by volume for a total of $1,010,400. Even its close supporters had to admit that it had not been a good night. Two banks of 4 telephone operatives looked down from the flanks of 70 chairs arranged in front of auctioneer Martin Gallon but only 35 people turned up.

Frew stated the obvious. The whole point of an auction is to create a competitive space. In a soft market this is clearly not working. She speculated that serious buyers were simply holding back waiting to pick up pieces at lower prices after the auction was over. Sotheby’s specialist D’Lan Davidson confirmed this opinion. Before the sale he expressed confidence that international buyer interest would be stronger than in his previous sale, however this interest failed to turn up on the night. It seems serious collectors are keeping a close eye on the market but are not be prepared to re-enter the game just yet (other than for exceptional, one-off pieces). Frew’s was right. Post sales did materialise. Another 10 lots worth $80,000 were snapped up during the following week and four more (worth $100,000) are in play as I write.

It was a very nice end of year offering. There were many fine works including an early Clifford Possum board that had been ‘discovered’ in New York only weeks earlier. The Possum board attracted intense media interest in the lead up to the sale but was pursued by only two telephone bidders. No institutions threw their hats in the ring and the work sold for its low estimate of $120,000 hammer.  Only two of the works on offer created a real stir. Both were artifacts originally collected by Melbourne collectors Joan and Robert Rowland. The first, a superb southeast Australian broad shield (Lot 4), sold well above its $50,000 high estimate, when won on the phone with a bid of $68,000 by Mossgreen tribal specialist Bill Evan’s against two dealers in the room. Evan’s famously sold a previous shield collection of exceptional quality to the Australian Museum for an undisclosed figure over $1 million and hopes to do something similar again. If the quality is exceptional he is unlikely to be beaten. The second was the extremely rare New Caledonian Dagak Mask (Lot 10) purchased by Alex Phillips on the phone for $105,000 hammer. Malcolm Davidson was the underbidder. Malcolm is the son of Jim Davidson who originally sold the piece to Rowland. Both he and Phillips are extremely canny tribal art dealers with connections amongst the wealthiest and most discerning collectors.

It was disturbing to see such little interest in contemporary Aboriginal paintings created post 1980. While Paddy Bedford’s Biriyalji – Fish Hole sold at its low estimate of $100,000 hammer only 6 of 18 East Kimberley works sold on the night. None of the high quality works from Balgo Hills sold and only one of eight Papunya Tula paintings found a buyer. The large work by Makinti Napanangka ( lot 66) sold just below it low estimate at $26,000 plus BP.

However, this reflects a weakness in D’Lan Davidson’s background. He is in his mid 30’s and has only ever previously dealt in tribal art. Since taking up the role at Sotheby’s he has been on a fast learning curve and has done well to attract good quality pieces in a tough economic environment. However getting good works is far easier than selling them. An auction specialist’s real work is to find buyers and, judging by this sale, Davidson has a way to go in that direction.

The only contemporary Aboriginal painting that ignited strong interest was Daniel Walbidi’s major canvas Winpa. This was an exceptional masterpiece measuring 201 x 137 cm.  I bought it in the room for $34,000 + BP on behalf of a discerning overseas collector. Walbidi has proven to be amongst the hottest of the currently practicing contemporary indigenous painters. He is not prolific and I consider this work to be his finest to date.

The fact that auction sales of Aboriginal contemporary art are not working for the time being reflects, in my opinion, a number of recent developments. Recent changes to the regulations as they apply to Self Managed Superannuation Funds in Australia have made it far less attractive to collect art in this way. Fund managers are no longer allowed to lease these works back to their own company in order to derive enjoyment from them. The asset must conform to a very narrow interpretation of the Sole Purpose Test. As a result fund managers are far more likely to want to sell than buy, though they will be reluctant to accept the loss on a market flooded with quality works.
In addition, the bullish Australian Dollar is a disincentive for may overseas collectors for the time being along with the effects of the GFC in Europe and North America.

But there is something else at play here. Every art movement grows through a process from the moment of discovery by those who dictate a society’s taste culture, to wide spread acceptance throughout the primary market, to craving by investors, until it carves out its place in the secondary market. No art market has reached maturity until a vibrant secondary market has developed around it. The entire enterprise depends on the notion of collectability and increasing value over time. The best pieces are rare and become highly contested each time they are offered for sale.  The majority of art is dross, grist to the mill, it languishes and looses value in real terms.

During my 30 years involvement I have always been of the opinion that the Australian Aboriginal art market would not reach maturity until the secondary market developed beyond one or two elite auction houses. This process is currently unfolding. Former auction specialists and art consultants like myself, Wally Caruana, Tim Klingender, Michael Reid, Sophie Ullin and Lauraine Diggins all sell highly collectable Aboriginal artworks as an alternative to putting them to auction - just like Denis Savill, Rob Gould and Phillip Bacon have been doing for decades with non-Indigenous Australian Art. These consultants act as intermediaries finding desired artworks, brokering art, and finding the middle ground between sellers and buyers. This is making it far more difficult for the auction houses wedded to the going, going, gone paradigm.

Crispin Gutteridge understands this and as a result decided against an end of year auction at Deutscher and Hackett. He had more than enough high quality works that he has been unable to sell in the conventional auction over the past 2 years. Why not just exhibit them at a healthy price and work in the same way as the consultants brokering a deal by private treaty? The exhibition began with a nice catalogue of 68 pieces worth just on $1 million, but another 14 works (worth $300,000) were added after the catalogue was published and distributed. It was due to conclude on the 22nd of October by which time time 29 items had sold for $230,000. However D & H intend to continue to offer these works by private treaty over the summer months and a week after the closing date they informed me that they had another 13 works on hold of which three had been reserved by collecting institutions. This included the front cover work, and the large Brook Andrew from the Island series

Crispin Gutteridge explained that given the current market reticence D & H want to open up a dialogue with collectors and potential vendors and carry out transactions in a more relaxed manner. They believe that in this way they can build the confidence of clients in quality Aboriginal art as they work toward their next selling exhibition.

Readers should watch this space to learn how Aboriginal art sales go over this coming month. It should be fascinating. We begin with the sale of the collection of notable collector, the late Anne Lewis AO. This sale will be held at the Art Gallery of NSW on November 7th and should draw a who’s who of the art world to the viewings and sale. Lewis was an avid collector of Australian contemporary art including Aboriginal art. On the 20th November the famed Melbourne dealer Hank Ebes, whose Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings closed last year after more than 20 years in Bourke Street, will hold his own auction at his Cheltenam premises in Melbourne. Bucking all trends, will offer 360 works of Aboriginal art from his private collection. And on the following day Bonham’s will offer 60 pieces including 28 from the estate of the late Paddy Bedford in Sydney. These have been toured to New York and London during the last 2 months.



About The Author

Adrian Newstead co-founded Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery, Australia’s oldest continuously operating Aboriginal art gallery, in 1981. He is a valuer of Aboriginal and contemporary Australian art accredited by the Federal Department of the Arts, and acted as the Head of Aboriginal Art for Lawson~Menzies Auction House 2003-2006, and Managing Director of Menzies Art Brands 2007-2008. Adrian Newstead Fine Art Consultancy acts for, and advises, collectors when buying and selling collectable Australian artworks at auction and through private sale. A widely published arts commentator and author, Adrian is based in Bondi, New South Wales.  

To comment on this article or to seek assistance with your collection Adrian can be contracted on 02.93009233 during office hours or at adrian@cooeeart.com.au

Untitled (Emu Corroboree) by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Untitled (Emu Corroboree) - 1972
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri 3

51 x 35 cm

Winpa by Daniel Walbidi
Winpa - 2007
Daniel Walbidi 1

201 x 137 cm

Makinti Napanangka 1

153 x 122 cm

Biriyalji - Fish Hole by Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford
Biriyalji - Fish Hole
Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford 2

122 x 135 cm