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How to Collect Aboriginal Art


Posted: 03/22/2021


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 you’re collection a name anyway; just not your own.


I am reminded of the Hedge Fund manager in Asia who buys art by young and emerging contemporary artists avariciously on his gallery hops every Sunday whether in Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo. While he is happy to hear from the galleries he frequents regularly, the last thing he wants is to be bombarded with emails and calls from galleries and artists that get hold of his name randomly. The same can be said of the wealthy software giant who has many different collections housed in purpose built museums around the world, yet will only buy from those with whom he has a signed six-page confidentiality agreement. Woe betide the dealer who reveals his identity – this wonderful client would be lost forever.


Wealthy collectors aside however, many others have added enormous value to their artworks simply by giving their collection a name. By ensuring that galleries, dealers and art centres add the collection details on to artist’s résumé’s, and agree to have their name on display cards and in catalogues when works are ‘on loan’ to institutions, these collectors are constantly adding value to their holdings. Collectors like Margaret Levi and Bob Kaplan in Seattle have been champions for Aboriginal art in the United States and since the mid 1980s and are long time patrons of the Seattle Art Museum. Their collection is inextricably linked to that institution with important works always available to its curator of African and Oceanic Art for use in thematic exhibitions. The artworks they have given to the museum, and their patronage, are included in the book A Community of Collectors: 75 Anniversary Gifts to the Seattle Art Museum which honours its most valued and respected patrons.


Carried to its logical conclusion many others, who that amassed extremely substantial and valuable holdings, such as Australian Aboriginal art collectors Elizabeth and Colin Laverty for example, invested heavily in documenting their collection through the production of books of the highest quality. The Laverty’s commissioned authoritative writers and curators to write essays in order to produce an artefact that was of great benefit, not just to their own collection, but also to the entire Aboriginal art movement. Collectors with this sort of vision, passion and commitment are patrons of the utmost importance and do the artists that they have collected the ultimate service whilst substantially adding value to their own artworks.


Unattributed artworks and works without Source Provenance


Despite everything I have advised above, there are paintings, artefacts and objects that have a lower Index of Provenance than they deserve 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 in to 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. They include many fine pieces that can be highly desirable and worthy of collecting.?


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.



Wungurr Snake from the Hills near Warmun – Rover (Julama) Thomas
136.0 x 93.0 cm




Bark Paintings created prior to the 1970s

While the majority of bark paintings that found their way in to 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 a decade I have been regularly presented with images of bark paintings and artefacts, accompanied by tall stories and true, regarding their source provenance. Commonly conversations or letters explain that….


‘I collected these 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: Are they as old as is claimed and are they consistent with other pieces of similar vintage from the 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 Minglemanganu, 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.

This painting, when rated according to the Index of Provenance above, would have been considered COLD rating only two points at the time it was offered to Lawson~Menzies in 2006!!!


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 found its way in to 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 is working to further establish its bone fides as a most highly desirable asset. Needless the painting is now 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 Jeffrey 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 in to the hands of schoolteachers and others under contract in Aboriginal communities.

No sooner had Jeffrey Bardon begun working with the old men at Papunya than a number of artists began offering their paintings to buyers further a field. 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 Jeffrey 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 conservator and forensic analyst Robyn Sloggett of the Ian Potter Centre for Conservation in Melbourne. 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 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 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 is no longer an issue as this painting is now strongly represented in a range of literature and it 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.?

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. Yet 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. 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.

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 publically. 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.

However it is equally true 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.

Interestingly, the elders in Papunya argued amongst themselves and their neighbours about what could and couldn’t be portrayed in their paintings more than 30 years ago. They finally agreed 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 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

As in most other classes, 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 of 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; Arthur Palmer, who spent years working as a pilot throughout Australia’s far north; James Elmslie, the tribal art specialist for Theodore Bruce auctions, Chris and Anna Thorpe, and myself.


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 was to lead to the genesis of the East Kimberley painting. 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.?


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 creaked 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. A knowledgeable buyer can make you a tidy profit if they purchase them 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 [6]


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How to Collect Aboriginal Art




Provenance is one of the most universally misunderstood concepts in art, most particularly in Aboriginal art.

Provenance is the imprimatur conferred upon an artwork due to the entire history of its existence. It is a movable feast that only begins with how the artwork finds its way into the market and on to a client’s wall.

Imagine that a painting, like an individual dollar coin in your pocket, has passed through many hands since it was first created. The dollar coin is an exact replica of thousands of other coins that came off the same press in the mint yet each has an utterly different history of ownership. Your own coin may have been used to purchase all manner of items, both legal and illegal, by rich and by poor, healthy and sick, at any time between childhood to dotage. And so it is with each and every painting created by each and every individual artist.

An artwork’s provenance, and hence its value, only begins with how it found its way into the market in the first place. In the case of an old artefact, this could include whether it was actually made for its intended use or made for sale; whether it was at some time collected by a famous colonial identity; or sat on the mantelpiece in an iconic old homestead. In the case of an Aboriginal painting or sculpture, this will include whether it was produced by an artist and supplied to a community Art Centre, their official agent, an independent dealer, a taxi driver in Alice Springs, a local wholesaler, or perhaps even directly to a gallery at some point along the artist’s travels. Once past this initial transaction, the artwork may find its way into a souvenir shop, a retail outlet that specialises in Indigenous art, or a shop that carries a range of art objects and styles. If purchased by an exhibiting gallery, it may be used to advertise an exhibition in a quality art magazine and, if considered good enough, be included in a group or solo exhibition. It could be used to illustrate an invitation or included in an exhibition catalogue. The standing of the gallery that confers its imprimatur on the artwork will make a valuable contribution to its collectability, just as its sale on eBay or through a ‘fly by nighter’ will fail to enhance its value.

Given the many different scenarios that are possible, I have devised a guideline for collectors, which I refer to as an Index of Provenance. This 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. While there will be those at extreme ends of the philosophical divide who may object to the relative magnitude of the points that I have bestowed for various characteristics that make up the history of any individual artwork, I have weighted them according to my own experience after discussion with fellow dealers whose experience in the industry is as extensive as my own. The accompanying table should be self-explanatory. By adding the points that you can confer upon any individual painting, the ways in which a good collector can enhance its provenance should be obvious.



This index is indicative only. It can, however, be a very powerful tool, used to determine the provenance of your artwork. Give an artwork a ‘score’ using the point system below. It is specifically for a work of Australian Aboriginal art. It can, however, be modified in order to apply to absolutely any asset class.


Mount Wedge – Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
100.0 x 180.0 cm


Aboriginal artwork

Bought directly from the artist with some documentary evidence prior to 1985 2
Bought through an Art Centre 3
Bought through a recognised established wholesaler 1


Accompanied by:

a certificate of authenticity from an Art Centre 2
a certificate of authenticity from a recognised established wholesaler 1
a photo of the artist with the painting 1
a photo of the artist working on the painting 2
a folio of photographs or video showing the painting being created 3


The work was/Is:

Sold and documented by an exhibiting gallery* 2
Sold and documented by a retail non-exhibiting gallery or wholesaler 1
Included in a documented and curated group exhibition prior to sale 1
Included in a solo exhibition of the artist’s work 2
Illustrated on the invitation or in a gallery catalogue that is sold with the painting 1
Included in a regional touring exhibition prior to, or subsequent to sale 1
Included in a national touring exhibition 2
Included in an international touring exhibition 3
Illustrated in a touring exhibition catalogue 2
Illustrated in a book 2
Illustrated in a magazine article or review which accompanies the work 1
Lent to or de-accessioned from a regional gallery or equivalent institution 1
Lent to or de-accessioned from a State gallery or equivalent institution 2
Sold from an important private collection 2
Lent to or de-accessioned from a National gallery or equivalent institution 3
Currently offered for sale or purchased from an elite gallery* 2
Previously offered for sale by a major auction house** 1
Currently offered for sale by a major auction house in its premier specialist sale (Tier One) 2
Currently offered for sale by a major auction house in its Tier Two or mixed sale 1


Thoonbi – Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford
150.0 x 180.0 cm


*An exhibiting gallery is considered to have a regular exhibition program throughout the year. Holding an occasional exhibition in their gallery or in an interstate or overseas gallery is not enough to qualify as an exhibiting gallery for this purpose. If an exhibiting member of ACGA or Art.Trade you may add extra point

** Christies, Sotheby’s, Bonham’s, (In Australia Deutscher and Hackett, and Mossgreen can be considered major auction houses)


The maximum index that is achievable using this guide for a work of the highest provenance is approximately 20 points.


Now that you have worked out your score, let’s see exactly what this means



– and, as a consequence, increase its value


You will find the points system above to be an extremely useful and reliable indicator of the desirability of any work that you may be considering for purchase or that is already in your own collection. While not mentioned in any of the criteria that attract points, you can be almost certain that there will often be a high degree of correlation between an artwork’s aesthetic value and its increasing index of provenance. However, the most important information that this index of provenance can provide is HOW YOU CAN ENHANCE THE VALUE OF YOUR ARTWORK. This is how good collectors increase the imprimatur of individual pieces and, in fact, their entire collection.


1-4 COLD
If this is a painting bought directly off the artist or a dealer with no bone fides and was not bought through a reputable shop or gallery, it will not be of interest to the secondary market unless it has considerable age and the work is of a high quality. It is unadvisable to purchase paintings in this category that were not created at least pre-1985, as once in your collection they are extremely difficult to sell. In the case of Aboriginal artworks, those created prior to the establishment of art centres and specialist dealers and galleries may be an exception if they are aesthetically pleasing, rare, or culturally significant.


Artworks in this category should be well documented with either a certificate from the community art centre or working photograph(s). They may have been bought through a recognised gallery or dealer and should therefore be a reasonable investment if held on to for a long enough time to appreciate. Anything that can be done to increase the provenance of a work of art in this category will enhance its value. Lending it to an institution, getting it into a publication, etc. all helps, providing it is a good piece painted with integrity by a recognised artist.


9-12 WARM
A good collector, or sophisticated investor, will seek to ensure that the majority of artworks in their collection are in this category or above. It is far easier to build the imprimatur of art that already has this level of provenance. These works are likely to be readily acceptable to the secondary market. All works of a lower quality or provenance level should be shed, or their provenance improved in order to rigorously maintain a good collection.


13-16   HOT
These are works of high pedigree. Art in this category will always sell for a premium price and be highly sought after by serious collectors. These are generally listed as ‘top lots’ when sold and have a full page or more dedicated to them in sale catalogues.


As there are only works of museum quality here, you will be lucky to own one even if you have very deep pockets and an insatiable appetite for the best of the best.

I strongly recommend that those collectors who are primarily concerned with the investment potential of their paintings take a good look at those works with an Index of Provenance lower than 9 (i.e. those in the cold and tepid categories). While there are a variety of ways to enhance their value, serious consideration should be given to culling them, most especially if the options of improving their provenance are limited. This is especially important advice for those whose works are in a superannuation fund or similar investment portfolio. Works with a low provenance index should be sold and the money generated reinvested into works that are more easily moved into higher index categories.

By simply using the information above many of the ways in which you can improve the value of your art should be clear. These include lending works for inclusion in touring exhibitions, loaning works to institutions and exhibiting galleries, or promoting them through articles in art magazines and the media in general.

The worst possible thing that you can do for a work of art is to roll it up and store it under your bed or lock it away as if it were a share document or the title to a property. To increase in value, a painting should be as visible as possible.




– the cream always rises to the top

Always purchase fewer works of higher value and better provenance than spreading your limited funds too thin. Investing in works created by major established artists is definitely far safer in the long term, but these ‘blue chip’ paintings will be less likely to reap spectacular results.


Target paintings by acknowledged artists, in styles as represented in major institutions, if investment potential is a key objective. Once an artist dies or is no longer able to paint, the finite supply of paintings relative to the increasing domestic and international demand means that prices rise.

Hank Ebes, Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings, February 2005[4]


Art is no different from the share market. If you want blue-chip artists the fluctuations are going to be minimal. Others may reap spectacular profits both in the long term and the short term but there are no guarantees.

Charles Nodrum, December 2005[5]




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How to Collect Aboriginal Art




In common with others the world over, Aboriginal artists develop their art practice from youth to old age and, as they do so, their medium and imagery passes through many developmental stages. Some achieve notoriety relatively early in their careers, while others do not achieve wide recognition until after their death, by which time their paintings may sell for far more than anything they were paid during their lifetime. In retrospect, we are able to look at an artist’s output (their oeuvre) and determine those periods and styles that have struck a stronger chord, were more successfully realised, and, as a consequence, hold greater affection in the collective imagination.


Over the almost 40 years that I have been looking at Aboriginal art, I have come to realise that certain content, regardless of its cultural importance, has proved to be unpopular and poorly received at auction. For instance, other than in Hermannsburg watercolours or when included in the Papunya boards created during the early 1970s, the presence of figurative elements in Central and Western desert painting, though appropriate and occasionally successful, is generally seen as evidence of a concession to the market. Occasional works with figuration by Western Desert masters Turkey Tolson and Mick Namarari, or more recently by Boxer Milner from Billiluna, have failed to generate interest at auction. The presence of Witchety Grubs and Honey Ants, Snakes and Goannas is particularly unpopular in works offered for sale on the secondary market, even when evidenced in works by extremely important artists such as Michael Nelson Tjakamarra and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Paradoxically, the presence of figurative imagery in North Eastern Arnhem Land bark paintings was clearly an innovation introduced from the 1930s onward. This was intended to make the original abstracted clan designs more appealing to potential buyers. These bark painters largely escaped the critical contempt leveled unfairly at those Queensland artists whose mixed Aboriginal heritage saw them introduce figuration into paintings that stylistically borrow heavily on dot painting traditions. Nevertheless, it is an even greater paradox that in recent years a move away from figuration has heralded the greatest explosion in the prices of bark paintings since that medium first entered the market over a century ago. The examples would include many of the most important Yirrkala artists, as well as the work of central Arnhem Land painters John Mawurndurl and James Iyuna.

A careful examination of the prices achieved for paintings by prominent artists at auction reveals the periods, style, and content for which collectors have been prepared to pay a premium.


Works by Hermannsburg painter Albert Namatjira that feature figurative elements, other than gum trees and vegetation, are rare and have tended to be more highly contested in auction rooms than those that depict no more than plain landscape. The presence of his archetypal gum trees adds value but not as much as the occasional inclusion of animals or the buildings of early settlements in his Aranda homelands.


Some artists have been strongly identified with figurative imagery and it is worthwhile looking at a number of their works in books and catalogues in order to determine why some have proven to be more popular than others. It is interesting to note that Djambu (Sambo) Burra Burra, Jarinyanu David Downs, Jimmy Pike and many of the bark painters of Oenpelli in Western Arnhem Land have all fared badly in the secondary market with their largely figurative works.

Certainly, at this point in the development of the market for Aboriginal art, there is a strong preference for aesthetically minimal imagery that approximates abstraction and works well in contemporary spaces. This may be extremely prejudicial and culturally absurd, yet it is the undeniable truth. The major exception to this has been the incredible interest in, and prices paid for, Wandjina images by Charlie Numbulmore and Alec Minglemanganu, which have surely proven to be amongst the most significant improvers in the secondary market during the last decade. Perhaps this can be explained by their relative scarcity, having been produced at opportunistic workshops during a seminal period prior to the advent of an art movement as such in the East Kimberley region. So startling and powerful are these images, that they transcend their ethnographic context and can work in a contemporary setting. In contrast, the Wandjina images of Lilly Karadada, the last of the great Wandjina painters still living, are unfortunately yet to attract the same level of interest.

While traditional Aboriginal sculpture has been vastly underrated and extremely cheap during the last 20 years, several deceased artists, most notably David Malanagi, Mani Luki and Enraeld Djulabinyanna, have achieved spectacular results. In Malangi’s case, these results are far higher than anything achieved for his far more prolific yet equally important bark paintings. A notable exception among living artists has been the Owen Yalantja, whose Yawk Yawk spirits now hold the same cache as Caruso Guningbal’s Mimi Spirits during the 1980s, when he was the only Arnhem Land artist creating them.



Here, Indigenous Australian art differentiates itself from contemporary Western painting. In traditional dot paintings, and ceremonial paintings from the desert, the surface acts more as a two-dimensional plain, often with little to differentiate one section of the work from another. This is also true for many Arnhem Land bark paintings and Tiwi art, where figuration is all but absent. In departures from these traditional styles, such as the Hermannsburg watercolour school of landscape painting and the work of more modern abstract painters (such as Sally Gabori or Kudditji Kngwarreye) composition plays a much larger role.

Abstract Aboriginal painters such as Kudditji Kngwarreye rely on tension and balance to set some works apart from others. This is more of an innate sense in the artist than something that is studied, though it can be honed. Each colour field has a certain weight which is ascribed through its hue, size, and sometimes even surface texture. These fields have to be expertly distributed so as to have the desired effect, while still remaining true to Kngwarreye’s inherited country. Focal point, here too, plays a role, though not as obvious a role as in traditional landscape painting.

In landscape paintings such as Albert Namatjira watercolours, the composition will always be a huge factor in determining the work’s value. Namatjira painted most of his desert country from a slightly elevated point of view, as if looking down, ever so slightly on the landscape. He was able to capture the subtleties of colour as the desert changes from the soft tones of summer heat, to the rich colours of the early morning and late evening light. The majority of his paintings lack a central focal point yet, ‘a visual emphasis on the edges holds the composition in balance without either a dominance of forms near the centre or a hierarchy of forms’ (Morphy 1998: 273). Works by Namatjira that typify his unique style and tell-tale sense of balance and point of view will always fetch more than those that stray from the aesthetic that made him famous.



Most Aboriginal paintings from the Central and Western Deserts, The Kimberley and the Top End are painted en plein air, that is ‘in the landscape’. While many artists work on the patio or floor within the confines of their art centre, many paint on the veranda at home or directly on the ground. During the day, they may eat their food nearby or, in some cases, while actually sitting on top of the partly completed work. Camp dogs may walk across canvases and be shooed away by anxious art coordinators or family members. Sudden rain bursts may see half completed paintings, still wet with paint, whisked away and hung up under the veranda with clothes pegs. These working conditions do not make for the most ideal environment in which to paint as, from a conservator’s point of view, all art loses value when not in pristine condition. For those of us who have worked in the industry over many years, it has not been uncommon to see canvases that are stained with animal fat, discoloured from fine ochre dust or affected by water damage, despite the often-magnificent artwork that has been applied to their surface. As the industry has improved professionally this has become less problematic, as has the quality of the paint being used. Cheap student acrylics and cotton duck have long since been replaced by synthetic polymer paints and imported linen of the highest quality. Such is the success of the Aboriginal art market, that even emerging art centres and the majority of independent dealers ensure that their artists receive the finest art materials that are available.

Nevertheless, what of all of those thousands of desert paintings that have been painted over the past 40 years and tens of thousands of bark paintings created over more than a century? How have they survived the ravages of time? There is no doubt that many of the finest early paintings created in communities from Papunya to Yuendumu to Balgo Hills have suffered degradation in their pigment since created. Many will soon be in need of conservation if they are to survive as Aboriginal Australia’s greatest legacy for hundreds of years in to the future. Another great paradox is the fact that the more their pigmentation fades the more ethnographic they appear and this may well add value instead of reducing their desirability.

Collectors should also be aware of the presence of repairs and patches adhered to the back of desert paintings in particular. These are often found along the margins of the work. I will never forget receiving more than 70 paintings for the first Balgo Hills exhibition held in Sydney during the early 1990’s and measuring the works to have stretcher bars prepared for their presentation. I simply could not get over the number of paintings with holes in the corners and remember asking the art coordinator at that time why they existed. He explained by informing me that the English translation for the Kukatja name for the community was ‘Windy Place’ and that most of the old men, having painted their works at home, used them as walking sticks when crossing the dustbowl between their camp and the art centre. I witnessed it myself later that year as the men, their long white beards streaming back across their shoulders, were buffeted by the fierce frontal wind, on their march across the compound. Needless to say, although it may not dissuade you from purchasing, it is always advisable with old Aboriginal paintings to ask for a full condition report when considering purchase at auction.

More obvious, and more aesthetically challenging is the effect of time and moisture on bark paintings. Prior to the 1960s barks were created using orchid juice and other natural substances as the fixative that was mixed with the earth pigment in order to make it more stable. While these imparted a softer and more desirable patina than the acrylic binders that became ubiquitous from the 1970s onward, many of the finest old bark paintings have suffered severe ochre loss thereby reducing their commercial value dramatically. This is most especially so of white pigment which in many cases contains a proportion of lime. It is not just old bark paintings that are thus affected. Many fine paintings by Kimberley artists including Rover Thomas, Paddy Jaminji, Jack Britten and most especially Queenie McKenzie suffer from the loss of the white ochre dotting that characterises the highlighted demarcation between blocks of colour, and this inevitably considerably diminishes their aesthetic potency. Repainting and repairing damaged blocks of ochre or dotting in Kimberley painting or the rarrk cross hatching in bark paintings is a job for specialists and never approached lightly. The fine line between being absolutely faithful to the original artist’s hand, and going just one step too far in returning artworks to their former splendour is one for only the most practiced and devoted conservator. It can not be undertaken without a kit bag full of earth pigments gathered from around Australia and a great deal of colour testing prior to the application of a single brushstroke to the work itself. Many works have been repainted badly. Yet it is surprising how many have been repaired successfully and returned to their former beauty. Collectors have varying views in regard to the ethics and suitability of conservation work so it is best to be aware of the issues and have any potential purchase checked thoroughly prior to acquisition.

In addition to ochre loss, bark paintings are commonly seen to have warped, curled, cracked, or been affected by mould or insect damage. Once more, these are all repairable other than in the worst cases. Barks can be re-humidified over a period of days so that they loose their stiffness and actually slump on to a flat surface. This must be done professionally and with such care that the moisture sinks in from the back but stops just short of the painted surface in order to avoid water staining the artwork. If achieved with skill the painting can then be slowly dried after applying a brace that will prevent it returning to the shape that it had assumed in the years subsequent to its creation. Nevertheless the truth is that this is never entirely satisfactory. Great bark painters who took extreme pride and care in stripping and preparing bark slabs for their paintings were master technicians. They could make a surface for their art that was wafer thin and perfect in every way. If the bark was made well in the first place it should never have warped later. Thus the warped bark that requires flattening or repair has most likely been flawed since its creation.

Not so with cracking and water damage. These are generally the result of rapid changes in humidity during their lifetime, mistreatment or misadventure. Barks and wooden sculptures can be stabilised, cracks and holes filled and water damage over-painted transforming a once aesthetically challenged and damaged artwork into a lovely work of art once more. It costs, but the price may well be worthwhile. You would be surprised how undervalued old bark paintings are in the market, and how worthy they may be of restoration. Moreover, there is a great deal of pleasure to be derived from bringing an old delicate culturally significant piece of art back to life.





If you are able to afford it, buy the major or most significant work possible from an artist’s exhibition. Always try to buy a larger work that is the equal aesthetically of something smaller.

A solo show is the single most important tool in promoting an artist’s career. Properly documented and well-advertised exhibitions in good galleries confer added value on the paintings that comprise them. In any exhibition, an artist will create no more than six major works of which one or two will be the largest and most prominent. Another 6 to 10 works of medium size and perhaps another ten smaller works will round out the show. If an artist’s work is worth collecting, and the market is aware of it, there will be no shortage of willing buyers for the most important pieces. These are by far the most collectable pieces that an artist is likely to produce during the year or two between each of their solo exhibitions.

That said, not all artists produce big works and many smaller pieces have great quality. You may not have a pocket deep enough for a major work or a wall big enough to accommodate it. On a limited budget, it is better to buy small works of high quality and good provenance by major artists than looking for large works of lesser quality and provenance. Collecting smaller works by successful artists is a fine thing to do, as long as you are aware that it will always be easier, when you eventually sell, to place a major piece in an auction. It will be displayed more prominently and to greater effect than a smaller work, no matter what the quality.



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How to Collect Aboriginal Art



The importance of an indigenous artist can be related to both their cultural role and their creative output. Most of the determining factors that work in the contemporary and international art markets hold true for indigenous art as well. These include the recognised importance of their role in the development or history of a particular art style, the number of solo exhibitions they have held, their representation, the quality of the galleries they are shown in, and the number of important collections their work has been placed into.

When considering an artwork, ask yourself the following three questions:

Is this work entirely consistent with the artist’s cultural background?

When people refer to Indigenous Australian art as a ‘school of art’, I try to explain to them that, if that term means anything at all in the Australian context, Aboriginal art consists of many different schools. Each and every tribe in Australia has its own approach to art and each is stylistically different and as instantly recognisable as say cubism or expressionism in European art. Each of these tribal styles conforms to regional styles that have had their master practitioners and leaders.

What do I know about this Artist’s career?

Throughout an artist’s career their art goes through a number of developmental stages. In the case of traditional artists, this can be due to their having gained the right culturally to depict additional stories in new ways; their adoption of new mediums; or, in the case of a number of very important desert artists, their abandonment of ethnographically specific iconography in favour of more abstracted minimal imagery. It is of course much easier to identify changes in style amongst urban aboriginal artists, as this is very similar to looking at any other contemporary work.

Two Women Dreaming – Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula
85.0 x 126.0 cm


An artist’s renown may be the result of works created throughout their entire career, or due to a particular period during their career. For instance, the majority of Rover Thomas’s early ceremonial boards, produced between 1979 and 1984, are more highly prized and valued than many of his later works produced when he had come to think of himself as a contemporary painter. This is also the case in the career of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, whose early 1972 Papunya boards have sold for upwards of $400,000, while most of his paintings produced after the 1980s languished in the market throughout the 1990s and have only recently begun to be viewed more favourably. Yet the most desirable paintings by Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri are their minimal and ethereal late career paintings.

Click this link to learn more about the careers of the most important Aboriginal artists and the periods and styles of paintings that are the most highly desirable, written and maintained by indigenous art specialists, Mirri Leven and myself.

The careers of most popular artists illustrate the above issues when it comes to placing a value on their work.


The Balgo Hills artist Elizabeth Nyumi painted from the late 1980s until 2011, but achieved greatest prominence for paintings created just prior to and after having been selected as a feature artist in the 14th Biennale of Sydney in 2004. These texturally liquid, ripely coloured paintings were a significant creative advance on earlier flatter depictions of her country and the almost generic paintings she made at the beginning of her career. Yet her late career works, created between 2006-2008, do not exhibit the same qualities that made those paintings from 1999-2004 so very popular, despite the enormous increase in her prices over the period. This makes it imperative that, in considering the work of this particular artist, you determine what her most popular periods were.


My Country – Kudditji Kngwarreye
241.5 x 198.0 cm


1980s paintings by the formative Papunya painters may currently be out of fashion, but they would seem to represent a wonderful opportunity for the collector. After all, these artists were amongst the most important of the ‘golden age’ of the movement, and their 1980s paintings represent the moment when they began to see themselves as painters and artists as opposed to ethnographic recorders of cultural information. A fine collection of works by the artists of this period would be relatively inexpensive to put together. Surely, if these were collected carefully, documented properly, toured, and loaned to various institutions, their recognition and hence value would increase markedly over the next decade or two. The same could be said of the male artists of the Utopia region in the Eastern Desert, whose work has been largely overlooked due to the emergence and current pre-dominance of female artists from that region.

Is this artist recognised nationally?

There are as many different types of art in the universe as there are cultures that populate it. All art worlds, almost without exception, are an elitist construct; Australian indigenous art is no different. When it comes to the prominence of particular artists and the financial value of their paintings, many factors may come into play.

Buyers are, for the most part, historically ignorant and strongly influenced by the activity and promotion of elite gallery directors and important curators and experts that specialise in a particular ‘taste culture’. All dealers have artists and regions that they are committed to promoting, and they do so through powerful and strategically calculated business practices. They promote their galleries and businesses in order to advance their own bone fides. By attaching their imprimatur to the artists and paintings that they represent, they add value and cache to the artworks that are purchased from them in preference to those that are purchased through alternative sources. Naturally, elite galleries function best when they can tie up a particular artist’s work and gain exclusive access to it. By denying access to others they can have confidence in advertising the artist’s work widely and setting the prices at whatever level they like. In a buoyant market this exclusive access ensures success.

While this principle works well in the non-indigenous art market, it is not entirely suited to Aboriginal art. I have observed the great pride and satisfaction that many artists derive from the knowledge that they have a number of alternative people to whom they can sell their art. More and more the market is developing in a way that sees artists exploring possibilities outside of the art centre/elite gallery nexus. Despite a strong argument that this leads to exploitation and undermines the market, the number of options open to Aboriginal artists continues to increase over time.

Alongside those artists that have achieved the degree of recognition that they truly deserve, the world is full of mediocre artists that have ‘made it’ and great artists who have not. The nature of the art market dictates that good dealers, curators, and institutions become the determining difference in the careers of the great majority of artists. Yet, once an artist becomes well known their options open up greatly. For many the fact that they work outside of the art centre/elite gallery construct has done little, if anything, to diminish their fame or financial rewards. In fact, in many cases, quite the opposite has occurred.




The less you pay for a work, the greater the financial risk


Shopping around to find a gallery that will sell a work by a desired artist at the cheapest price is generally not in your best long-term interest. A large number of factors must be taken into consideration if you wish to ensure the price you pay represents good value.

If you are simply buying a painting in order to decorate your home, this may not be such an important issue for you. After all, so many people insist that they buy simply to enjoy and have no intention of ever selling. However, I have learnt from experience that few collectors enjoy the thought that the value of an artwork they have purchased may actually decrease over the life of their ownership.

You may be surprised to learn that the majority of art actually decreases in value in real terms over time. I say ‘in real terms’ in order to take into account the effects of inflation and the costs involved in selling the piece at the time you choose to exercise your ‘exit strategy’.

Secondary sales compete in the market with works being produced by currently practicing living artists that sell through retail shops and exhibiting galleries throughout Australia and overseas. Most of the artworks being sold year after year in the ‘primary market’ will eventually join the ‘secondary’ market.


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How to Collect Aboriginal Art



A collection is a curious thing. The best can be far greater than the sum of its individual parts. If it is put together with care, love, and scholarship, it can be enlightening and provide a genuine service to those that seek to understand the subject that it covers. It need not have been put together by professionals or institutions to be of great worth. Many of the finest collections have been developed by amateurs and enthusiasts.

At its worst extreme, however, a collection can be a disparate group of objects with nothing to link them other than the person who brought them together. While it is possible that it may contain some extremely interesting individual pieces, it will be of little interest as ‘a collection’ unless the collector was a person of the greatest renown.

It has been my own experience, as a dealer for the past 40 years, that the majority of collectors begin with a piece or two purchased on impulse before getting hooked on a particular art form and being confronted with the inevitable question: ‘What am I trying to achieve and where do I want to go with this?’

Many simply collect until they have no more wall space. Their own particular criteria would have been to find a piece that suits each individual nook and cranny of their home or office, matching the furniture and fittings. Others begin to seriously question their aims as their collection builds, and they realise that they will need to limit their future purchases according to certain criteria. These criteria usually vary according to price, medium, genre, and region.


Karntakurlangu Tjukurrpa – Dorothy Robinson Napangardi
122.0 x 122.0 cm


I am reminded of a client who visited my gallery early in my own career. The daughter of a famous expatriate Australian painter, she had grown up with art and artists and, at the time I met her, she had just joined the public service. It was the beginning of her working life and she had just fallen in love with Indigenous art, believing she could spend up to about $8000 each year of her fairly modest income on her ‘great passion’. What should I collect? she asked. Should I buy works on paper by famous artists, as their major works are far too expensive? Should I concentrate on emerging artists? After some discussion she decided, with my encouragement, to continue to visit galleries, seek out interesting shows, and ensure she was on their mailing lists. She would subscribe to as many art magazines as possible and visit state and national galleries in order to be as aware as possible of all the latest artists and communities emerging onto the scene. But she would purchase only one major work each year. She decided that any artist whose work she collected should be represented by exhibiting galleries and have been promoted by them in national art magazines. At that time, in the early 1990s, she was able to buy works by Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye as well as many of the finest artists that were to emerge later including Maggie Watson and Dorothy Napangardi. Over the following 25 years she advanced through the public service eventually working in Europe for UNESCO. Her income increased greatly as did her yearly spending, yet her decision to collect just one fine example of an artist’s best work each year developed into a collection of the highest value both aesthetically and financially.

Many others have consulted with me over the years with different priorities. The finest privately owned Indigenous works on paper collection in Australia is owned by a retired Professor from Sydney University who, coincidentally, taught me chemistry in the late 1960s. I was asked to speak at her retirement dinner several years ago and was able to enlighten her past and present students and colleagues about a passion that had been one of the touchstones of her life outside of the university for more than 30 years.

Many others have built strong collections based on the region in which they live. An internationally renowned botanist and ecologist who worked on the site survey teams for the development of the North West Shelf Oil Deposits, the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, and the Argyle Diamond Mine during the 1980s. Now in her 90s, her own collection of Aboriginal art and artefacts from the Kimberley region is diverse and fascinating and reflects a vital formative period in the development of that regional style. Later, when advising others on their own collections, she was able to impart the importance of a strong focus, despite their own interest in regions further afield.


Pukamani Pole – Unknown Artist
171.0 x 22.0 x 19.0 cm


Amongst the Aboriginal art enthusiasts I have known, were people who collected only bark paintings; old tools and weapons; pre-contact material; paintings which only depict certain types of ceremonies; early Papunya desert boards; acrylic paintings of the late 1970s and early 1980s by Pintupi men; and the list could go on and on.

One of the most exciting things about Australian indigenous art is that it is so incredibly diverse, historically, regionally and stylistically. With thousands of individual artists from hundreds of different tribal groups covering a continent as large as Australia, the number of collecting criteria is endless, giving you the opportunity of doing something quite unique with your own collection despite the ever-growing popularity of the art. Many of the most interesting esoteric pieces are actually not that expensive in comparison to major paintings by the top artists. The fact that the majority of collectors are not that well informed about the field and don’t have a strong historical perspective on the art and the movement, provides a great opportunity for the serious collector to purchase interesting works that will fit into unusual collections at very reasonable prices. As the market itself becomes more knowledgeable, these collections will value rapidly.

You may decide to concentrate on women’s paintings, depictions of bush foods, specific dreaming sites, images associated with water and abundance. The list could go on and on. No matter what your interest, my advice is to follow the tips that I outlined earlier: decide how much money you are comfortable committing each year; get onto as many gallery mailing lists and subscribe to as many art magazines and auction catalogues as you can; build a good library and get to know the dealers and other collectors by attending the openings. Take your time and see as much as you can while you come to your own conclusions about the artists and art styles that you are most interested in adding to your own collection.




Beware a wolf in sheep’s clothing

Wild Flowers – Emily Kame Kngwarreye
180.0 x 283.0 cm


It is not just the name of the artist that counts, as the quality and provenance of the artwork can be major factors in determining value. A quality work by a prominent artist will almost always increase in value while an inferior work by the same artist will almost always be a risk. Collecting the wrong works can be avoided by consulting a gallery that you trust. It is wise to remember the adage ‘The Painting is King’. I always say that a ‘great painting is a great painting is a great painting!’ Regardless of its source provenance, a truly great painting will always rise like cream to the surface.


A good quality piece will always increase in value but a poor piece by the same artist, however prominent, will not prove to be a good investment

Roslyn Premont, Director, Gallery Gondawana, December 2004[2]


Just because the artist is known doesn’t make it a good piece of art.

Virginia Wilson, Art Consultant, March 2011 [3]


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Cooee Art foremost acknowledges Australia’s First Nations Peoples, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, as the traditional owners and custodians of the unceded land and waters on which we work and reside.


Price and availability are subject to change at the gallery’s discretion. While we try to ensure the accuracy of all data across the website, Cooee Art reserves the right to cancel a sale due to price change.

The artist holds the copyright for all images throughout the website and must not be reused or reproduced in any way without explicit permission.

© COOEE ART 1981 – 2021

Cooee Art foremost acknowledges Australia’s First Nations Peoples, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, as the traditional owners and custodians of the unceded land and waters on which we work and reside.


Price and availability are subject to change at the gallery’s discretion. While we try to ensure the accuracy of all data across the website, Cooee Art reserves the right to cancel a sale due to price change.

The artist holds the copyright for all images throughout the website and must not be reused or reproduced in any way without explicit permission.

© COOEE ART 1981 – 2021