A select slice of Paris’s art collecting elite gathered at elegant rooms on Avenue Matignon earlier this month for auction house Christie’s first-ever exhibition of Australian Aboriginal art. Thirty or so works on preview had been selected especially to tempt European tastes, pulled from 168 lots to be auctioned in Sydney on October 12. Last week another tranche of dots-and-dreaming lots from the sale went on view at Christie’s New York.
The sale itself represents a shake-up in the entire sector. With only sporadic competition, the Aboriginal art auction market has been virtually the personal fiefdom of Sotheby’s aboriginal art specialist Tim Klingender for almost a decade. But this year five different companies are conducting sales of Aboriginal art, with the French-owned Christie’s expected to snare the biggest slice of market share from its arch international rival.
Aboriginal art has been booming at home for more than 5 years, yet internationally the market remains underdeveloped, and even puny compared to other collecting categories. And while European collectors like Thomas Vroom or Karl-Heinz Essl still account for roughly a third of all auction sales of Aborginal art at the top of the market (above AUD $150,000), less than a score of such players operate at this level. Shaun Dennison, who joined Christie’s in March to head its new Aboriginal art department, is instead hunting growth opportunities at a lower level, in the middle band, both at home and abroad.
We’re looking to widen the market, said Dennison, starting with diverting sales of non-Indigenous Australian paintings to Aboriginal art. In a sale with a total value of $2.5m to 3.5m, about 40 per cent of the lots are estimated under $10,000, and just two above $150,000, top lot being Digging Stick Dreaming by Maggie Watson Napangardi. Dennison expects 50 per cent of sales to come from overseas buyers in Europe and North America.
Dennison has put together a sale short on numbers but high on quality, culling 168 works for sale after viewing more than 1000 works. Dennison has also framed his sale as modern Aboriginal art, which he defines as from 1971 to the present day. It’s from the time Geoffrey Bardon commissioned the Papunya boards to the present day and its restricted to works on board, paper, and canvas. We aren’t offering any barks or artefacts or watercolours pre 1970, none of the Hermannsburg artists like Albert Namatjira.
Christie’s catalogue raises the bar in providing detailed provenance for every lot, something never seen in the sector before, from Sotheby’s or anyone else. It worries me when an artist is painting for 10 or 20 different sources, says Dennison. So I’ve also tried to restrict myself to artists who have shown a commitment to selling through one or two agencies – such as Maggie Watson Napangardie and Gallery Gondwana, or Ginger Riley and Alcaston Gallery. That’s where the top quality emerges.
So who attended the Paris preview to savour the swag of Emily Knwarreye’s, Rover Thomas’s and others? A mostly aging crew of permanent waves and intellectual beards: twinsets and pearls for Madame; basic black wrapped round gourmand waistlines for Monsieur. CanapÃ©s and champagne downed to an ambient didgeridoo soundtrack rounded out the picture. Nary a black person to be seen in cooee of this soirÃ©e – either Aboriginal or otherwise, in this, Europe’s most multi-ethnic metropolis.
In the absence of her husband and Ambassador to France, William Fisher, art-loving Kerry Fisher at least flew the flag with an egalitarian resolve: It wouldn’t matter if it was an ‘Australian-Australian’, a ˜European-Australian’ or an ‘Aboriginal-Australian’, we come to all the artists’ shows, said Fisher. We try to patronise everyone as much as we possibly can!”
Madame is not alone. Attitudes toward Aboriginal art in Europe remain confused and diffuse, undermined by the carpetbaggers selling sub-par art by the metre on the internet, and held back by poor marketing and persistent if antique notions that contemporary art by indigenous Australians is folk art and only of anthropological interest, and thus sits outside the scope of the serious modern or contemporary art collector, or the museum curator.
It’s so very far away, your country, so it’s good that these works are shown here, offered impeccably-tailored Eric Agote, a Parisian insurance executive and budding collector. You always must be speaking to Europe if you want more of us to become aware of how original these works are. Agote owns works by Balgo Hills’ Ningie Nangala and Greenie Purvis Apetyarr, artists whose works wear the bold graphic designs and direct use of line and colour so favoured among European collectors of Aboriginal art.
Collectors here love the line, they love structure and clarity, said art dealer, Stephane Jacob, a former student at the Louvre who has been selling Aboriginal art in Paris for more than 8 years. What flys in Australia can flop in Europe, and vice versa, said Jacob. You find that artists who paint very direct, clean and colourful works – like Linda Syddick Napaljarri or Dave Pwerle Ross – sell very well here but not so well in Australia. But good luck trying to sell a Eubena (Nampitjin) here. ¦
Dennison agreed, nominating a work in the sale by Balgo Hills artist Helicopter Tjungurrayi, pegged at $4000 upper estimate, as being very cheap for Europe. Jacob said prices are also often higher in Australia because, understandably, Aboriginal art is traded much more heavily there.
In Australia you have a lot of private investors driven by individual superannuation funds: they buy, they sell. Here we think in the long term: we buy, we keep.
Artist: maggie watson napangardie, emily knwarreye, rover thomas, ningie nangala, greenie purvis apetyarr, linda syddick napaljarri, dave pwerle ross, eubena nampitjin, helicopter tjungurrayi
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