RBonham’s Strategic Entry into Aboriginal Art set to Reap Rewards

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 8th June 2011

In November 2010 Bonham’s announced that two former staff from the Aboriginal Art department at Sotheby's Australia, Francesca Cavazzini and Greer Adams, had been employed as specialists in charge of their new Aboriginal Art Department.  Chairman Robert Brooks also announced that Tim Klingender (former Director of Aboriginal Art at Sotheby's Australia) would take on the role as Senior Consultant in order to advise on all aspects of its operation. The establishment of yet another international department signaled the company’s commitment to growing its Australian business apace. Since that time they have appointed a raft of specialists including former CEO of Menzies, Litza Veldakis to head its Australian Art Department, and most recently former MD of Sotheby's Australia, Mark Frazer, to Chair its entire Australian operation.

In Aboriginal art circles the first of these announcements coincided with the worst results achieved by Sotheby’s Australia in more than a decade. Since that time, the industry has awaited Bonham’s first Aboriginal art offering with expectation.

The sale includes three works carrying estimates in excess of $100,000 and a further ten above $50,000. (This compares to 12 over $50,000 at Deutscher and Hackett of which only 3 sold). However there are few fresh works amongst them and the majority carry estimates well below the prices paid for them at auction during the last 15 years.

It begins with ten well-priced artifacts of fine, but not outstanding, beauty or rarity. A very awkward and badly drafted bark Wandjina by Wattie Karruwara (Lot 11) is estimated at $7,000 to $10,000 (having sold in July 2003 at Sotheby’s for $7,200).

The following lot is a lovely work by Jack Britten in earth pigment and bush resin on canvas that was sold by Sotheby’s in July 2004 for $49,850. It actually set his record price at that time. Yet in this Bonham’s sale it is offered with a presale estimate of just $25,000 to $30,000. i.e. the vendor has been convinced to risk a loss. However it is far more likely to sell above its high estimate once potential buyers are informed of its previous record.  

This is but one example of Klingender’s approach in this sale, which is laden with recycled paintings carrying low estimates. Lot 13 (Rover Thomas’s Untitled Rainbow Serpent) sold at Sotheby’s in July 2001 for $87,500 including BP while carrying a presale estimate of $30,000-50,000. In this sale it risks a loss at a low estimate of $60,000.  Similarly Rover’s Yillimbiddi Country (Lot 15) sold for $35,380 at Joel’s Fine Art in June 2008 (Lot 14) yet carries a low estimate of $25,000 this time around. There are many other examples scattered throughout the sale. Two more examples however will suffice. Lots 19 and 20, two early boards by Uta Uta Tjangala and Johnny Warrangkula have both appeared in Sotheby’s sales previously (the first in July 2001 and the other in June 1996). Though the work by Uta Uta failed to sell its estimate this time around is incredibly conservative at just $20,000 to $30,000. The Warrangkula previously achieved $36,800 and is offered this time around with a presale estimate of $30,000 to $50,000.

Other works that carry estimates well below current market values include Lot 14 by Queenie McKenzie which has previously been offered at sale for $35,000 to $45,000 but is included in this sale at $12,000 to $18,000, and a fresh and highly attractive work by Paddy Bedford that should rocket past its low estimate of $60,000.

Several other lots deserve to be highlighted. The collection of 10 bark paintings by Western Arnhem Land master Bobby Barrdjaray Ngainjmirra has not appeared before at sale to my knowledge and stands out amongst the Arnham Land works.    Similarly the collaborative western desert painting by Carol Golding and others makes the ubiquitous Papunya paintings of the post 1990 period look overrated. It does however carry an ambitious estimate of  $50,000-80,000 when conventional wisdom would suggest it is worth no more than $44,000 including the buyer’s premium. However Klingender has always been prepared to back his own judgment when he considers a work a one off masterpiece, and this has stood him in good stead time and time again. (eg Gordon Bennett’s Possession Island, 1991 sold in 2007 for $384,000 when estimated at $300,000 to $500, 000 even though his previous highest result was just $52,800; and Tommy Lowry’s Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya, 1984 estimated at $400,000-600,000 sold for $576,000 against a previous high water mark of only $32,940, to name but two.)

One or two works do, however, seem to me to be too highly estimated. With so many works by John Mawaurdjurl in this sale, his 157 x 66 cm bark Mardayin at Kakodebuidi, though a solid work with Laverty Collection provenance, is a huge ask at $60,000-80,000. Though this work does have strong appeal, only one piece by this artist has ever sold for more than $48,000. (Ancestors at Milmilingkan contained very unusual figuration along its upper margin and set his record price of $90,227 at Joel’s Fine Art in June 2007). One other work has sold for $27,000 however the next 12 fall between $18,000 and $23,000.  This would suggest that Lot 18 in this sale is worth only half of its presale low estimate of $60,000.

If you have a wall large enough to accommodate it, one of the bargains in this sale is the 195 x 465 cm black and white work by Gloria Petyarre. This accomplished and masterful painting carries Rodney Gooch provenance and would appear to be a steal at $30,000-$50,000. It would make a great counterpoint to her auntie Emily Kgnwarreye’s black and white Big Yam Dreaming in the possession of the National Gallery of Victoria.

There are three works estimated in excess of $100,000 and their sale is vital if this Bonham’s strategy is to be seen to be successful. Ningura Napurrula may well have been one of the artists to participate in the wall finishes of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, but, since that commission, she has painted for a raft of independent dealers. Her works have been ubiquitous in the market for several years and her records are dominated by just two sales. This particular painting (Lot 82) sold at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in a fundraiser to build a swimming pool in the Kintore community. Another was auctioned by Sotheby’s in Paris to raise money for the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal. Each sold for more than $100,000 (however only two other works have sold for more than $60,000). This time the monumental 210 x 280 cm Pool Party canvas is being offered at $150,000 to $200,000. Getting this top lot away at this price, in this market, will be an equally monumental task.  

By comparison Booralbun, by Rover Thomas, is a tiny work. It was one of two 90 x 60 cm paintings in Sotheby’s June 1999 sale (both purchased by Mary Macha in 1986 and sold to Robert Holmes à Court). The first adorned the catalogue cover and caused quite a stir when sold for $107,000. (more than the sale of any other painting this fueled the demand for Rover Thomas works at auction, culminating two years later when All that Big Rain Coming Down Topside  1991 sold to the National Gallery of Australia for $775,000. Booralbun was the other small work in that 1999 sale and it achieved $52,900 (Lot 33). This time around, in very quiet and pensive market it carries what seems to be an extremely ambitious estimate of $100,000-120,000.

And finally, to one of the most interesting lots of the night-Rover Thomas’s Juntarkal Rainbow Serpent (Lot 56). This was, in fact, the painting that, indirectly, became the undoing of Ivan and Pamela Liberto, famously jailed for fraud in November 2007 after forging Rover’s works. Though they copied many others, so distinctive was this particular painting that their fraud was easily exposed. It is a brute of a painting with very little to recommend it aesthetically other than its ‘outsider art’ appeal. Yet it sold at Sotheby’s in April 1999 for $147,375 while carrying a presale estimate of $80,000-$100,000. On this occasion it is estimated at $120,000 to $180,000.

This is Bonham’s first Aboriginal art auction. It is a boutique sale of just 145 lots worth only $1.77 to $2.5 million. Anyone who understands the economics of the auction business knows that Tim Klingender and his former Sotheby’s team cannot make their new employers a profit by putting on sales of this value. They will have to parlay an 80% plus sale rate by both value and volume into future sales worth considerably more than $3 million. Klingender has done everything possible to pull his vendors in to line in order to achieve this result. At the same time he has backed his judgment on works he is convinced he can sell as masterpieces.  All eyes will be on the result.
Adrian Newstead