Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Aboriginal Art Directory.

It can sometimes be a thankless business trying to sell Aboriginal art. The sheer distance between remote art centres and the southern cities where most deals are done is capable of engendering a level of neurosis that makes equable relations hard to maintain. Sadly, it’s not unknown for a remote art coordinator to come to quite unreasonable conclusions about a commercial gallerist. And this becomes a serious problem if he or she then denies supply to that gallery, or if an attempt is made to co-opt other art centres into refusing to deal with that gallery.

That’s called a cartel “ and the ACCC does not like them!

So, long-term Hobart Aboriginal art dealer, Euan Hills was pretty shocked when he received this email from Steve Anderson, manager of Tiwi Designs on Bathurst Island, offshore Darwin, regarding the senior Tiwi artist, Jean Baptiste Apuatimi:

Dear Euan,
It has been brought to our attention by galleries that represent Jean that the retail prices of Jean’s work with your gallery are retailing for less or similar to wholesale prices. Talk of you ‘getting cheap Jean’s’ have made their way to my office on a few occasions now. I understand you have been a strong supporter in representing Tiwi Art over the years and we would like to have a transparent dialogue in regard to what is identifiably the weakening of an artist’s provenance which contributes to a lack of confidence in the Tiwi ‘brand’.

As you are probably aware, the paintings you purchased were from a short stint when Jean produced work at Manupi over the Christmas holidays last year. To say the least this created much tension within our Network and all concerned stakeholders. We believe that ‘cheap’ prices were afforded to you recently through Manupi without adhering to a price structure that had, we thought been understood between the art centres. As the managers were leaving it is obvious that our existence as a network was not acknowledged.

Jean has expressed disappointment with what was an innocent association on her behalf and sees firsthand the problems this is causing for the overall and long-term positioning of herself and her artistic oeuvre.To be frank we estimate as a by-product of this happening (what the managers at Manupi referred to as chucking her a bit of canvas because she was bored during the holidays) is more like Tiwi’s most senior artist being exploited simply for short term gain! 100k of sales have been forfeited.

This is not directed toward you personally, I imagine you have only one aspect of the story and were happy to get the works at such a good price. Retail prices should reflect actual prices. Please note because of a sluggish economy we are offering more amenable pricing of Jean’s work at the wholesale level however your prices are extremely low and hurt our relationships with galleries and collectors who have a longstanding collecting history and personal interest in Jean’s work.

Your informed response to this matter is highly valued.

Steve Anderson (Manager)

Whew! What do we have here? It could be a totally justified attempt by an agent to protect his artist’s reputation, her career development and pricing levels achieved in the past for Apuatimi’s work. Or it could just be a patronising attempt to deny this artist her right to sit down and paint with her grand-daughter, Natalie Puantulura over Christmas and to sell those art-works to Natalie’s art centre “ Munupi (not Manupi) Arts. It’s the clash of the ‘community’ theory of Indigenous art-making espoused by Anderson with the increasing tendency for the artists to see themselves as free-spirits capable of moving beyond community restrictions both artistically and financially.

Of course, the duty of an Aboriginal artist to pass on her ‘stories’ to kin is also a factor. And Jean Baptiste may just have needed cash to buy Christmas presents. According to Euan Hills, she certainly wasn’t disappointed and exploited.

For he was a regular buyer from Terry Larkin and Rachelle Burke, the couple who ran Munupi for 3 or 4 years (before moving to Maningrida recently). When they announced their departure, Hills made an offer to buy “ not take on consignment – all their good stock, not just works by Apuatimi “ though her’s stood out for Hills for the freshness which the old artist seemed to reveal as a result of the inspiration of working with her grand-daughter. There are 8 other Munupi artists in Art Mob’s show, ‘Talking Tiwi’, including Susan Wanji Wanji, Maria Josette Orsto and Natalie Puantulura, who’d had her first solo show in Hobart earlier this year. And the prices were set by the departing art coordinators, based upon their understanding of precisely the same sluggish economy that Anderson acknowledges in his email.

Odd then that his euphamistic amenable pricing of Jean’s work is perceived to be so different from Art Mob’s pricing “ in a range over seven works from $15,750 down to $5670. Perhaps the difference was too great for other commercial galleries attempting to sell Apuatimi at around $25,000, the level she had reached when she featured in the first Indigenous Art Triennial in 2007, before the GFC set in. Anderson does acknowledge that gallery complaints set this hare running.

On receipt of Anderson’s email. Euan Hills resisted an immediate reply; deciding instead to investigate the ACCC’s views on resale price maintenance, see whether he or Anderson might be infringing any aspect of the new Indigenous Code of Conduct, and similarly see where he stood as a member of the dealer’s organisation, Indigenous Art.Trade. He also spoke to the Tiwi Art Network, the organisation referred to in Anderson’s email as maintaining price structures between the three Tiwi Art Centres. All gave Hills a sympathetic hearing and are making their own investigations. They might like to add to their investigations a report that an Apuatimi canvas was for sale from Tiwi Designs itself on its stand at the recent Darwin Art Fair for less.

Which all begs the question “ when Aboriginal art prices are falling at auction and canvases are stacking up in art centres and galleries, is it better to ‘protect’ an artist’s provenance and brand – and art collectors’ valuations “ or is it more in a living artist’s interest to give them an on-going source of income?