Next in Series - How to Collect Aboriginal Art - Outsider Art



Material Culture, Gifts and Exchange goods Acquired Outside the Commercial Art Market

In my last newsletter I published a table which collectors can use to score the provenance of their Aboriginal artworks. As I explained, this Index of Provenance is intended as no more than a tool to assist collectors and help them understand the concept of provenance and how it can be applied by good collectors to enhance the value of their collections. Adding the points on the table provides collectors with the majority (though not all) of the factors that can enhance the value of their artwork beyond its relative aesthetic and historic merit.

The index is indicative only. There will be those who decry this approach, but for those collectors who are primarily concerned with the investment potential of their paintings this can be a very powerful tool.

Link to the Index of Provenance

Despite everything I have advised previously, there are paintings, artefacts and objects that are highly desirable in spite of their low score due to the historical period or social circumstances that existed at the time they were created. They include extremely rare fine examples of material culture, highly individual examples of ‘outsider art’, works of quality created by unknown or barely recognised artists, or items created by important artists that found their way into the market under serendipitous circumstances. These anomalies account for a tiny part of the vast body of material culture that has been produced by artists of many different cultures, including indigenous artists since first contact with Europeans but they should never be discounted.

[I refer below to examples drawn from Australian Aboriginal material culture, however, every class of art and antiques from every different cultural group will have similar anomalies.]  

Bark Paintings created prior to the 1970s

While the majority of bark paintings that found their way into museums and private hands prior to the 1970s were collected by well-known anthropologists and dealers or through prominent personalities in the field, many were produced as gifts or used as trade goods, outside of any formal art networks that were developing at that time. While few of these were well documented, many have survived in relatively good condition. Largely unknown and sitting in private homes throughout Australia and occasionally overseas they generally first appear when the current owners request a valuation. Having been a valuer myself for more than two decades I have been regularly presented with images of bark paintings and artefacts, accompanied by tall stories and true, regarding their source provenance. Example might be as follows: ….
‘I collected these items in the late 1960s when I worked at the remote Mudgeribah homestead’ …or…..’My parents lived out near Woorabindah and the local Aborigines used to visit’…or …..’My father was a field officer when the Jabiluka mine was surveyed’
As these stories are almost impossible to verify, a valuers job is to identify the pieces and see if they stylistically and historically fit the story. The valuer must consider if they are as old as is claimed and if they are consistent with other pieces of similar vintage from the particular region?

Every now and then it is possible to put a name to a work by comparing its style to others in reference books and museum collections although, most often, valuers tend to err on the side of caution. Many fine old pieces appear each year and occasionally a real gem is discovered. Like the collection of Wandjina paintings that was offered to me when visiting the sister of a terminally ill doctor who had worked for more than 20 years in a number of Kimberley Aboriginal communities. Amongst them was a large bark painting of a style that was soon identified as the work of Alec Mingelmanganu, an artist who created a very small number of now highly desirable paintings during the 1960s and 1970s. When sold at auction by Lawson~Menzies in November 2006 it achieved a price of $38,400. Persuaded by Sotheby’s less than a year later put it up for sale once more, the buyer realised a profit of nearly $50,000 after costs when it sold the following July for $102,000.

Alec Mingelmanganu, Wandjina 1979, natural earth pigments on bark, Est: $40,000-50,000, Lawson~Menzies Aboriginal Art, Sydney, 22/11/2006, Lot No. 9 SOLD: $38,400;

Est: $80,000-120,000, Sotheby's Important Aboriginal Art, Melbourne, 24/07/2007, Lot No. 31 SOLD $102,000


This painting would have been considered unworthy of collecting according to the Index of Provenance. It rated only two points at the time it was offered to Lawson~Menzies in 2006. COLD!

Yet having been accepted into a ‘tier one’ auction and sold it to a good collector the painting was subsequently nominally worth 4 points. The fact that Lawson~Menzies used it in its newspaper advertisements and on the invitation to its preview night should have increased its cache a little further. It was now TEPID. Having been given a major spread in the Sotheby’ catalogue just 8 months later and sold for such a spectacular sum the painting was now well in to the WARM category having been reproduced in several art magazines used to promote the success of the Sotheby’ s sale. Now well on its way to becoming a work of some notoriety, the lucky owner wisely lent it to an institution and worked to further establish its bone fides as a most highly desirable asset. Needless-to-say the painting is now a HOT property and it is just a matter of time before it enters the hallowed halls of a major collecting institution.

Desert Paintings created between 1960 and 1980

Most people believe that the first desert paintings were created for Geoffrey Bardon in Papunya in the early 1970s, however this is not strictly true. Desert paintings were created at a number of locations including Yuendumu in the 1960s and many found their way into the hands of schoolteachers and other contractors in Aboriginal communities.    No sooner had Geoffrey Bardon begun working with the old men at Papunya than a number of artists began offering their paintings to buyers further afield. Over the years hundreds of paintings created in the 1970s have turned up having been sold to nearby station owners, contractors who worked at Papunya, Haasts Bluff and nearby communities, and to a number of people who worked with Aboriginal people in the church and the bureaucracy in and around Alice Springs. Often in poor condition these works are generally more interesting culturally than they are aesthetically. But, every now and then, a real gem can turn up with very little to recommend it in terms of its ‘provenance’.

Another work that appeared in 2006 and was sold in the same auction as the work by Alec Minglemanganu (described above) was an early Papunya board owned by a brick-a-brack dealer in Mentone, Victoria. The painting had been sitting at the back of his shop since the early 1980s when as a student he had purchased it for $10 in a garage sale in Beaumauris. Although not in pristine condition here was a work almost identical to several recorded faithfully in Geoffrey and James Bardon’s definitive book on the formative years of the Western Desert Art Movement. It could easily have been one of the set of the 10 Budgerigar Dreaming paintings that Bardon himself described as ‘Kaarpa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa’s crowning achievement’. The same Kaapa who, along with Clifford Possum and his brother Tim Leura, was credited as being one of the founders of the entire movement. Given the absence of any provenance to speak of, the owner was encouraged to spend the $500 that it would cost to have the painting thoroughly examined by a conservator and forensic analyst at the Ian Potter Centre for Conservation in Melbourne.


Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa, Budgerigar Dreaming, c. 1971-72, 71 x 43 cm, Est: $40,000-60,000, Lawson~Menzies Aboriginal Art, Sydney, 22/11/2006, Lot No. 40 SOLD $72,000


When placed under UV light an array of concealed iconographic imagery was discovered that implied several parts of the painting were originally thought by the artist to be of a secret and sacred nature, too explicit to be revealed to a viewer other than a male initiated to the highest degree. The powder pigments were scientifically consistent with those used during the formative period of the painting movement. Having passed muster and now accompanied by a certificate giving an expert opinion on its authenticity, the 71 x 43 cm. painting on composition board was recorded as having been painted at some time between the beginning of 1971 and the end of 1972 and offered at auction in November 2006 with a presale estimate of $40,000-60,000. It was featured in a number of newspaper articles and art periodicals both before and after the sale at which it sold for $72,000 to a collector with homes in both Australia and the United Kingdom. He subsequently agreed to tour the painting in the exhibition, Masterworks from the Lawson~Menzies Collection, which visited regional galleries throughout Victoria, NSW and Queensland over the following year. Once more it was used in a range of publications to promote the touring show. It’s provenance now no longer an issue this painting is well on the way to being worth as much as the not dissimilar but slightly larger Budgerigar Dreaming 1972 sold by Sotheby’s just 4 months earlier for $216,000.

Tools, Weapons and utilitarian Artefacts created pre-1980

Unless they have previously been part of documented collections or de-accessioned from an institution, most artefacts are unattributed to any particular creator and lack provenance if created prior to 1980. The creator is commonly referred to as Artist Unknown, though we prefer to think of them as Artist Once Known.

While early artefacts may have been utilitarian items, many are of great artistic beauty and interest. They may have originally been made to throw at and kill an animal, fend off a foe, carry possessions or represent a totem in a ceremonial context. In many cases their age, decoration and surface patina make them sensuous and alluring, highly desirable objects. To my mind, the most important considerations when looking at old artefacts are age, form, design and patina. More simply put - age, beauty and condition. The best artefacts, many of which were collected in the earliest days of the colony, are extremely finely executed with delicate incising or fluting, a graceful and classic form, and a patina consistent with a century or more of gentle but cherished handling. When mounted properly such items are beautiful art pieces.

A selection of superb artefacts currently on show at Cooee Art Gallery, Bondi Beach - Click here to view

This important and specialised area of collecting can include sculptural objects and ceremonial regalia as well as sacred objects, which generate great sensitivity particularly amongst Aboriginal people when they appear publicly. The lack of clear guidelines has made it all but impossible to display for sale many pieces that are suspected of having had a sacred purpose. The position taken by many tribal dealers differs markedly from that of a number of bureaucrats and advocates involved in culture and art. There are those who believe, as I do, that objects originally imbued with sacred meaning for a specific purpose at a specific time, are no longer sacred once this time has elapsed and its purpose has been fulfilled, especially when no longer held within the particular clan context that considered them so. Many fine old pieces can be seen to have been partially burnt signifying to many tribal specialists that they were decommissioned, that is their sacredness was released so that they could be sold freely by their owners after their original ceremonial purpose ended. Many objects which have been the subject of heated debate have actually been accompanied by documentation from early art advisers in the field who argued that only by offering them for sale could it be ensured that the ability to continue to make them would be passed on from one generation to the next.   

It is equally true however, that a large amount of important and often sacred material, was taken by ethnophiles as curios or given away inappropriately by tribal members under stress in exchange for tobacco or rations. Wooden and stone churinga’s and ceremonial bull roarers (which are often churringa’s that have been bored with a hole to disguise their original purpose), all fall in to this commercial no-man’s-land. Yet attempts to seek advice or to repatriate them to the most appropriate people meet with failure, time and time again. While no one really wants to claim them, or has an appropriate place to keep them, Aboriginal people, most often from cultural groups far removed from the actual owners, continue to argue for their protection from display or public sale. Interestingly, many of the most important Aboriginal paintings bear identical designs to the markings on these wooden and stone objects, and the artists simply state in the accompanying documentation that the content cannot be revealed as it is secret and sacred, in order to be able to sell them publicly.

At the outset of the Western Desert painting movement more than 30 years ago, the elders in Papunya argued amongst themselves and their neighbours about what could and couldn’t be portrayed in their paintings. They finally agreed on certain guidelines and the desert painting movement was able to thrive unfettered. Yet objects bearing exactly the same designs sit in plan-drawers and filing cabinets the world over. They are no longer used in a ceremonial context principally because most of the ceremonies are no longer performed. Those ceremonies that do continue to take place require the creation of new objects in order that they be imbued with sacred content anew. Surely this argument is just about the medium, rather than its content. When, in early years of the millenium, the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) attempted to address this issue in its ethical guidelines it gave no clear and transparent advice for dealing with this difficult issue publicly. So, in the absence of any public guidance, these objects are sold to eager collectors privately and clandestinely.

Fakes and Forgeries 

Like all other classes of art the world over, Aboriginal tribal art has its share of fakes and fraudsters. There have been a number of documented cases of forgery where almost perfect replicas have been passed off as the real thing. It is therefore wise to buy from those that really know their subject and have worked in the field for many years. Amongst the most prominent and reliable tribal art dealers I have worked with in Australia are Todd Barlin, formerly of Sotheby’s; Malcolm Davidson, who now carries on the business founded by his father, the irrepressible and extremely well regarded Jim Davidson; D’Lan Davidson whose bi-annual catalogues are always keenly sought by collectors, Arthur Beau Palmer, who spent years working throughout Australia’s far north; James Elmslie, the tribal art specialist for Theodore Bruce auctions, Chris and Anna Thorpe who are especially knowledgeable in regard to Oceanic material, Bill Evans the former owner of Caspian Gallery, and myself. There are of course others.

Outsider and Children’s Art

Amongst the many other esoteric classes of collectable material that have been created by Aboriginal people are works made by itinerant unschooled artists and children. Occasionally the most wondrous discoveries are made and some of these have shed light on artists who have gone on to become artists of renown. In one particular case they spawned an entirely new art movement.    In the late 1970’s Paddy Jaminji, Jacko Dolmyn, and Paddy Mosquito, painted the first bits of plywood construction board in earth pigment to be carried in the ceremonial enactment of a song cycle composed by Rover Thomas after Cyclone Tracy.  At the time no one could have imagined that this would lead to the genesis of painting in the East Kimberley. These boards created during the late 1970s predate any art movement as such, and a number were sold to early site surveyors for the Argyle Diamond mine. The majority found their way to Perth and into several important collections including the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Berndt Museum.

Thomas, Rover, Owls at Tunnel Creek, 1984, natural earth pigment on construction ply, 120 x 47 cm To be included in Cooee Art MarketPlace Auction November 27th 2018 Est: $18,000-20,000

Ginger Riley’s first paintings were on small scraps of old plywood and cardboard picked up in the dump, some of which were framed using Phillips head screws to hold plastic electrical conduit to the outer margins. Even the first desert paintings were actually painted on rolls of brown paper provided by a schoolteacher in Yuendumu during the 1960s. They are now part of the Power Bequest and after many years in the collection at the University of Sydney are presumably now somewhere in the vaults of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

If you were to ask me to recall the best piece of outsider art that I have seen in Aboriginal Australia I would have to say it was the overturned and rusted car body sitting on its roof on red earth along a sand gully off a road just off the Tanami Track. Painted crudely with desert iconography in what must have originally been vibrant colours the entire body was peppered with the dotting created by bullet holes. It would have made a wonderful installation in a major art gallery and may well have been saleable if shown in the right context. 

On the other hand Howard Morphy’s American discovery of a box of 113 paintings by children from the Carrolup River Native Settlement in Western Australia in a dusty Colgate University storage space in April 2004 was one of national significance. These are never likely to be for sale as they are of vital cultural significance to contemporary Aboriginal people.




Don’t let your hand be quicker than your eye  


When collecting emerging artists be prepared to make mistakes. A modest budget requires a good eye to minimise financial risk. Visit major galleries and collections to find out which are the main emerging artists represented. Developing your ‘eye’ is an essential part of learning how to identify a quality work. The works chosen by the curators of the major state and national collections provide invaluable guidance to viewers as they develop their own collections. Look at what isn’t selling. These works may be inexpensive, yet they may be works of real quality that are out of favour. Knowledgeable buyers can make a tidy profit if they purchase these underappreciated artworks and then document and promote them properly. 


If you’re paying less than $5000 for a work of art (in the primary market), it generally means the artist is emerging. Its low investment but high risk.

Alison Harper, Editor, Australian Art Market Report, April 2005


Wandjina, 1979 by Alec Mingelmanganu
Wandjina, 1979
Alec Mingelmanganu

114 x 74 cm

Budgerigar Dreaming, c. 1971-72 by Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa
Budgerigar Dreaming, c. 1971-72
Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa

71 x 43 cm

Owls at Tunnel Creek by Rover (Julama) Thomas
Owls at Tunnel Creek - 1984
Rover (Julama) Thomas 9

120.0 x 47.0 cm
MP #317

How to Collect Aboriginal Art — Branding Your Collection

Giving your collection a name is one of the best mechanisms for building its value available to any clever collector. If you prefer to maintain your anonymity, give your collection a name anyway; just not your own.