Described by renowned Australian art critic, Robert Hughes, as belonging to ˜the world’s last great art movement’, collectors of art from this extraordinary ancient but vibrant living culture have, in recent years, fuelled a boom in sales. Prices at auction have skyrocketed, and those who entered the market early have enjoyed great returns on their investments.

In 2006, Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s Earth’s Creation achieved a record of AUS $1,056,000 at auction; the first million dollar plus sale at a Lawson-Menzies auction. Last year, Clifford Possum’s epic Warlugulong was sold at Sotheby’s to the National Gallery of Australia for AUS $2.4 million.

Swept along by the wave of this success, and the expectations of rich rewards from investing in Aboriginal art, art aficionados have mined their savings for a piece of the action and purchased Aboriginal art for their superannuation and investment portfolios. This has been reflected in industry statistics which show that in 2007, secondary art market sales exceeded AUS $25 million; and over recent years well over 40 records have been broken for the top performing artists.

Today, however with the impact of the global financial meltdown being all pervasive, sales in all sectors “ including Aboriginal art “ have dropped. Within this context, however, it’s well to remember that art provides a very stable haven for funds; if purchased wisely art can be a source of excellent return.

Today’s climate therefore is a great time to start collecting. It offers collectors a rare opportunity to buy well at auction and also through galleries.

But how do you begin collecting Aboriginal art? Before taking the plunge, savour first the pleasure you are about to enjoy. I strongly advise that this be an adventure of the heart; that you buy because you’re passionately in love with the work you wish to purchase. This is because, in the end, your artwork will be a constant companion; you will more that likely see it every day.

It’s also well to remember that the promises of your collecting adventure will not just be aesthetic ones. As an owner of an Aboriginal painting, you step into a world said to be at least 40,000 years old; one that that draws from the most ancient if not the most fascinating living culture on the planet today.

Aboriginal art is informed by a sacred mythology, or tjukurpa, that draws from this. It is called the ˜Dreamtime’ or Dreaming “ the incredible Creation Period of Aboriginal belief.

The Dreaming occurred in ancient times when powerful Ancestral Beings were said to have formed the land, the waterholes, the rivers; and at the same time created the people, the plants and animals. They came from under the Earth and took epic journeys across the country, making and creating as they went, before finally disappearing beneath the ground again.

These magical Beings are said to have taught the Aboriginal people their laws, and ceremonies which need to be enacted in the present in order for survival and well-being. For Aboriginal people, the Spirit Beings still live today and are very much part of their traditional culture. Their stories form the inspirational source for the mythological content of Aboriginal art. When artists draw on this, the act of painting brings the Dreaming into the present. It generates strength and ancestral energy into the ˜Now’.

The next step in the collection process consists of building your knowledge base about the Aboriginal art industry. Begin by trawling the key commercial gallery internet sites, including Agathon Gallery, Alcaston Gallery, Cooee Aboriginal Art, Michael Reid, Hogarth Galleries, Gabriella Roy, Gondwana, William Mora, Utopia and Gabriella Pizzi.

Useful publications include Margo Neale and Silvia Kleinert’s Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture; Wally Caruana’s Aboriginal Art; Susan McCulloch and Emily McCulloch-Childs’ Contemporary Aboriginal Art (which, helpfully, has just republished in a fully revised and expanded third edition); and any of Jennifer Isaacs’ beautifully illustrated publications.

Art auction house catalogues are a must, and it also pays to look in on State and National Gallery bookshops, especially for their exhibition catalogues on this subject.

Before making any art purchase, however, you should decide what you want from this exercise. You may wish to purchase one or two pieces just for the pleasure of owning and looking at the work. In this case feel free to shop around and spontaneously purchase at will. You can get great prints for around $300 (see the Aboriginal Art Print Network online) and paintings from $800 plus. Your reward will be a collection that makes you feel good; the motivation behind many of the truly great collections of the past.

Alternatively, if your aim is to buy with an eye for investment return and perhaps eventual resale through a dealer or art auction house, then you should take a more considered and strategic approach.

After research which includes reading, looking at art, and discussing your preferences with knowledgeable art advisors, an area of interest should be selected. For sheer pleasure, try looking at the optically dazzling and colourful community desert art online at Irrunytju, Utopia, Yuendumu, Balgo, Papunya Tula, Fitzroy Crossing and Lajamanu. There’s also coastal works from Yirrkala, Lockhart River and Tiwi Islands. These will certainly inspire you.

Your aim is to find an individual artist whose work appeals; or a specific community, painting style or theme around which you can build a collection. This will make your collection a meaningful entity. And remember: a collection linked to an interesting area often has much more value for resale than a selection of unrelated works.

Your next consideration is to decide how much you wish or can afford to spend each year. Ideally, for investment purposes, the purchase price needs to be around $10,000 plus. At this price, if you’ve done all your homework, and you’ve found a work that has a certificate of authenticity from a reputable art auction house, gallery, community art centre or dealer, you can expect it to be a purchase that will give you a sound return. To optimize this, your painting should be held for at least five to ten years.

Now we come to the really exciting stage: shopping around and making a purchase. Knowing which artists are hot in the market, the artists whose work is increasing in price and selling well at auction, is important. Auction prices are good indicators of what the market is prepared to pay for an artist’s work, so it’s worth drawing up a list of the artists who are in your price range, and familiarising yourself with their works, before you start.

For serious, cashed-up collectors, start at the top. Stars in the auction room, and now deceased, include Rover Thomas (sales in excess of AUS $13.8 million), Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Albert Namatjira and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, and Lin Onus.

Others who have sold between AUS $1-2 million are Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Paddy Bedford, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Queenie Nakarra McKenzie, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Uta Uta Jangala, Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, and Maggie Watson Napangardi.

Of living artists, the dazzling talent of Tommy Watson tops the list. He is a stunning colourist who achieved a record sale price of AUS $240,000 for Waltitjata at Lawson-Menzies auction in 2007.

Other outstanding living artists whose work fetches good prices include Judy Watson, Dorothy Napangardi, George Tjungurrayi, Kathleen Petyarre, Ningura Naparrula, Makinti Napanangka, Lily Kelly Napangardi, Elizabeth Nyumi Nungurrayi, John Mawurndjul and Billy Whiskey Tjapaltjarri.

Emerging artists within the secondary market “ those representing good value as their price tags are still affordable “ include Regina Wilson, Tjayangka Woods, Jack Dale, Helen McCarthy Tyalmuty, Kudditji Kngwarreye, Paddy Simms, Anganampa Martin, Walangkura Napanangka, Wingu Tingima, Lorner Fencer and Eubena Nampitjin.

One you begin collecting, don’t be surprised if you find it taking over your life “ just enjoy the ride!