by: Adrian Newstead published: 2nd February 2011
If the success of the Aboriginal art market has been part hubris and adventurism then it follows that this was attended in equal measure by opportunism and envy. There are currently no shortage of ‘investment’ galleries closing, and naysayers who, observe the market in apparent decline, and crow ‘I told you so’. Viewed from the outside this may make a compelling argument. Certainly insiders will readily concede that we have seen better times. But all is far from doom and gloom. So let’s look closely at where we stand, dispensing with the bad news first.
The fall in sales of collectable art on the secondary market has been nothing short of dramatic. Following the rapid rise from a total of $6.962 million at the start of the millennium to $26.455 million at the end of 2007 (including Australian tribal art) the secondary market for Aboriginal art fell first to $13.407 million in 2008 and by 2010 totaled just $10.101 million. This was the worst result since 2002. However sales totals fail to tell the full story.
While poor results and gallery closures indicate a lack of market confidence, a number of mitigating factors cannot be overlooked. The introduction of resale royalties and prospects that the Cooper superannuation recommendations would see thousands of paintings dumped on to the market thereby undermining investor confidence, definitely played their part. Several events that should have been attended by great fan fair and publicity failed to make an impact or receive the reportage they deserved. Most importantly the launch of the new industry code of conduct, a move that could prove to be one of the most important steps toward the market’s maturity and longevity, passed relatively unnoticed, and critics were allowed to go unchallenged publically.
The principal reason for the fall in market value was clearly the absence of high value works at auction. Both consignors and consignees were reluctant to include important pieces for fear of seeing them fail. With so few high value works on offer at public sale the record price for the year was achieved when the National Museum of Australia purchased Anatjari Tjakamarra’s early board Story of a Woman's Camp and the Origin Of Damper 1973 for $384,000 at Sotheby’s in July. It was a far cry from Clifford Possum’s record setting Warlugulong, 1977, which sold in 2007, 6 months before the global meltdown, for $2,400,000. However, with all 5 works sold of 5 offered at an average of $110,380 it was Anatjari who achieved the highest rating of the year, just ahead of overall market leader Emily Kngwarreye who came second with no less than 4 results amongst the top 10. Lin Onus was 5th during 2010 behind Alec Mingelmanganu and Bill Whiskey.
Anatjari’s success saw him move from 26th position to 15th on the all time career rankings while the sale of one work (for $84,000) saw Alec Mingelmanganu move from 17th to 12th. Bill Whiskey has been the Aboriginal art market’s most dramatic improver. He was ranked at 190th in December 2007 and is now 28th, having accumulated the threshold of 20 sales records that ensure his AIAM rating is no longer discounted. Beside those artists already mentioned, others whose works sold well during 2010 without dramatically improving their career standings were Albert Namatjira (6th), Paddy Bedford (9th), Otto Pareroultja (10th), Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (11th), Turkey Tolson (15th), Ginger Riley (17th), and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa (20th).
However, in a year when big-ticket works by major artists were few and far between, the most significant movers of all came from outside of the top 100, most especially amongst those whose secondary market appearances are getting closer to, or exceeding, the threashold of 20 works offered for the first time. The contemporary Kimberley painter Rammey Ramsey was 7th in 2010 and jumped from 264th in the entire movement at the end of 2009 to 118th. Butcher Cherel moved from 128th to 104th, and Lena Nyadbi went from173rd to 153rd. Others who did spectacularly in 2010 but who are yet to be listed amongst the top 200 due to the low numbers of works offered to date were Maningrida sculptor Owen Yalantja who progressed from 278th to 187th (at this stage only 10 works by this artist have been offered for sale at auction), Daniel Walbidi, who was 12th in 2010, Jan Billycan 11th, Weaver Jack 22nd, Sally Gabori 24th, Kuntjil Cooper 26th, Mick Jawalji (29th) and Shorty Robertson 27th. Based on their standout results during a poor year for the ‘stars of the movement’, watch these artists dramatically improve over the next decade. All are set to bullet up the rankings as their sales records increase.
In keeping with the current intense interest in the work of Hermannsburg watercolourists, all did well at auction. Beside Albert Namatjira whose results made him the 6th most successful artist in 2010 (thereby consolidating his position at 3rd in the entire movement) and Otto Pareroultja (mentioned above), Ewald Namatjira leapt from 124th to 56th on the overall standings following his performance in 2010 during which he was listed as the 16th most successful artist. No less than 25 works by this artist were offered of which 19 sold, and all of these bar three exceeded his previous average price. Others to do particularly well were Oscar Namatjira and Enos Namatjira, and Walter Ebaterinja. Other big improvers during 2010 included the bark painters Jimmy Galereya, Bobby Nganjmirra, Jimmy Angunguna, Ivan Namariki, and Samuel Namundja.
When the dust finally settled in early December it was Crispin Gutteridge at Deutscher and Hackett that had won the year with 41% of sales while the dismal result for Sotheby’s solid end of year offering consigned them to second place on 27%. Mossgreen took 12% on the back of Bill Evan’s tribal auction and a single vendor sale organized by Shaun Dennison while others, including Elders, Independent Auctioneers, and Charlestons, plus auctions in France made up the remaining 20%.
During 2010 no less than 3 French auction houses held Aboriginal art sales. They included Tajan, Geia and ArtCuriel. Interestingly Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi, the daughter of Aboriginal arts 4th most successful artist of all time Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri has been propelled from 114th to 63rd rank during the past 4 years due almost entirely to her European sales, amongst which 6 of her top 10, including her record $37,496, were recorded by Parisian house ArtCuriel. These auctions, and the current exhibition of major works at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, confirm the continued interest of European collectors. The ongoing importance of the Aboriginal components of the Musee du quai Branly and significant representation at galleries coinciding with major art events such as Art Basle cannot be overstated. The profiles of John Mawurndjul, Ningura Naparrula, Tommy Watson, and Paddy Bedford continue to be underpinned by their participation in these projects long after their realization. A number of important collections and private museums champion Aboriginal art in both Europe and North America. They continue to influence others. However, with several overseas economies currently in bad shape, and a bullish Australian dollar, the arrival of major overseas buyers at our sales is likely to remain infrequent, at least of the moment. We are unlikely to see a Carl Heinz Essel, an Urs Schwarzenbach, or Thomas Vroom again until the Australian dollar weakens considerably.
The biggest challenge for the industry today is to continue to mount internationally credible touring exhibitions targeted at countries that have historically shown the greatest interest in Aboriginal art (France, the UK, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States of America). In this regard it has been the Queensland Government, through its patronage of the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair and the work of the Queensland Indigenous Art Marketing and Export Agency (QIAMEA) that has shown the way through financial and logistic assistance for dozens of exhibitions overseas. Their support for Dennis Nona’s sculpture to be installed outside the new Musee des Confluences in Lyon, is the most audacious project ever to be undertaken by any Australian artist. Gapu au Dhangal, a bronze and pearl shell sculpture 8 metres high and 6.5 metres long will cost $1.5 million of which one third is being raised in Australia. Their efforts put other state governments, and the Federal Government to shame.
The ‘modern’ Aboriginal art industry is now 40 years old. A generational change is occurring as number of old established dealers are retiring and many of the opportunistic new ones are either folding or lifting their game. Galleries that specialize in secondary market works are increasingly emerging to challenge the auction houses for both high value product and clients. Many collectors who have sustained the industry since initiating their interest during their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are now in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and looking to gift or sell their collections. The treasure trove created by the very finest artists of the past 30 years is a resource that will sustain those secondary market players who are able to attract serious collectors, for decades into the future. Wonderful artists will continue to emerge and they will be promoted and protected by high quality art centre staff, and inspired artists agents who replace the departing Roslyn Premont. The industry code of conduct will end, for once and for all, the internal bickering that has proven so damaging to the industry’s reputation in its own homeland.
Interesting art is made all over the world, not just in Australia. We are a small country that is used to punching above its weight. There are plenty of new collectors to sustain the Aboriginal art market once the economic tide shifts once more in our favour. In the meantime it is vital that more effort be made to extend our reach overseas and build the interest that will deliver collectors to sustain the industry as the economic cycle builds toward the next peak. The involvement of government and the institutional sector will be critical if a new wave of artists is to find the same level of success as that of their forebears.
The last year has seen the passing of far too many great Aboriginal artists. Amongst them Johnny Bulun Bulun, Doreen Nakamarra Reid, Weaver Jack, Cliff Reid, Jimmy Baker, Wingu Tingima, Alma Webou, Jacky Giles, Greeny Purvis Kemarre, and Shane Pickett. Others to pass away at the end of 2010 or the first few weeks of 2011 were Paddy Japaltjarri Simms, Makinti Napanangka, Ian Abdulla, Mitjili Gibson Napanangka and Gerome Anderson. All are remembered with love and gratitude for their abiding legacy.