Amazing news! The Victorian State government has put up half a million dollars to save two artworks by the revered Wurundjeri artist and Ngurungaeta headman, William Barak for the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation. The unknown drawing and a parrying shield will be returned to Australia.

The two – a drawing Corroboree (Women in possum skin cloaks)‘ (1897) and a parrying shield also from 1897 by Barak, were successfully purchased by the Wurundjeri Corporation at Sotheby’s New York last night. The artworks appeared as the opening works in last night’s auction.They actually made (with the auction house percentages) US$378,000, an amazing price for for a 60 x 58 drawing on paper, and US$53,000 for the shield – suggesting that there was serious competition to buy the works. The State government’s contribution was topped up by A$120,885 that the Wurundjeri Corporation had raised through GoFundMe from over a thousand donors.

The Wurundjeri were particularly excited by the provenance of the works, which had been given by Barak to Jules de Pury and taken to Switzerland in 1897. The de Pury family had migrated with wine in mind, and relatives of Jules had already established the Yeringberg winery on land in the Yarra Valley beside the Corranderk Settlement where Barak and other Melburnian Aborigines had been removed to. Sadly, the Wurundjeri made such a good job of farming there that white farmers made sure they were yet again moved on after Barak’s death in 1903. The de Purys are still there at Yeringberg, still making wine.

But Jules returned to Switzerland taking his gifted memories with him. These works have not been seen in public since. Given this history, Wurundjeri elder, Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, a descendant of Barak, told The Art Newspaper that they were entrusted to the de Pury family “in exchange for cultural knowledge and safety of their place on Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Country”, so the auction was a breach of Aboriginal cultural lore.

Now, all’s well that ends well, with Creative Victoria also saying they’ll assist in the funding of an appropriate place to show the works.

It was also a pretty good night for Tim Klingender, Sotheby’s Australian expert in all things Indigenous. The sale as a whole attracted US$4.5 million in successful bids with excellent results (of course) for Emily Kngwarreye – her early work, ‘Alhalkere‘ from 1989 earning US$819,000, translating to $A1.14million – a Mick Namarari from 1990 attracting US$302,400, and a Wimmitji from 1991 topping US$100,000.

Other solid efforts were Nyapanyapa Yunpingu’s ‘White Painting’ bark obtaining US$27,700 – though her fascinating ‘Light Painting’ didn’t sell – and a 2004 Tjumpo Tjapanangka wooing US$189,000.
Other works that didn’t sell included an early Warlimpirrnga, two brilliant Wagabara barks and almost all the Arnhemland statuary, plus urban works by Richard Bell, Christian Thompson and Vernon Ah Kee.