I’m not sure they really get it! ‘Australiasia’s Premier International Art Fair’, Sydney Contemporary, opened today with expectations of exceeding last year’s c$16m. turnover before it closes on Sunday. Yet neither the Director in his opening remarks nor the ‘Art Collector’ magazine in its dedicated Fair Guide made a single mention of Indigenous art.

This is the fair’s fourth iteration (and my third), it’s gone annual rather than biennial, and twelve commercial dealers in Indigenous art had put their money behind their faith in the product; I’m told a stand can cost up to $75,000 in a prestigious position in the rambling Carriageworks ex-railway sheds.

Surely the Indigenous galleries deserved fair billing as a fifth of the 59 gallery turnout “ even if the headlines were expected to be written about the first appearance of Pace Galleries from NY, HK, London, Beijing, Seoul, Palo Alto and Geneva! Their Jean Dubuffet sculpture at c$5m. is certainly a palpable icon to draw attention to their presence as you enter the show.

But size isn’t everything. Melbourne dealer D’Lan Davidson is claiming that he’s set a new record for a John Mawurndjul bark at $140,000. That a man hailed as a master in the MCA’s current show dedicated to his life’s work, and simultaneously transported as an ‘Old Master’ to Beijing by the National Museum should never have exceeded $150,000 “ the starting point for a sketch by the likes of Bill Robinson or Tim Storrier “ is outrageous. Which surely makes a mockery of the SC18 talk session entitled ‘Why is Australian Art so Cheap?‘, with no-one selected to talk about the underpricing of the Indigenous.

Mawurndjul’s tightly packed and curled ‘Ngalyod‘ from 1999 is a superb transition piece from his early mythological creatures to his later abstraction of the essence of the Mardayin ceremony. For it already betrays the patterning of the future. No wonder an American buyer jumped on the artist’s current prominence and the prospect of a major bark tour across the US in 2020.

So – higher prices for Aboriginal art are there at SC18; this isn’t an Aboriginal art fair, where you’d expect to find more t-shirts that fine canvases. Topping my bill is Niagara Gallery’s gorgeous white-background Rover Thomas “ a rarity from this basically brown-ochred man “ at $300,000. A beautifully balanced evocation of the Kimberley hillscape. Actually, I note that Tim Klingender has a ‘Frog Hollow Country’ Rover at $350,000 “ but it didn’t have the impact of that Niagara canvas. Perhaps I was distracted by Klingender’s Charlie Numbulmore ‘Wanjina‘ from 1970 with the most appealing of faces? Or the largest early Eubena from 1992 I’ve ever seen “ before she painted everything in pinks and oranges “ which is dazzling in its complexity.

And then there’s a magnificent Emily on the Utopia stand showing just what a master colourist she could be. It’s a big ‘dumpdump’ from 1993 in dark purples and reds, with a few surprising patches of orange bringing light into the darkness. Long and narrow, I reckon it’s a bargain at $150,000. Less of a bargain “ but sold “ an outsize Sally Gabori on the Alcaston stand at $75,000.

Fascinating to compare Rover’s Kimberley hills and Paddy Bedford’s. Cooee Gallery has an impressive black, white and grey version of his ‘Thoonbi‘ story in which the hills overlap “ a frequent motif in his 2006 works, the last year of Bedford’s painting life. Thoonbi is a beautiful small gorge on the upper reaches of the Ord River on Bedford Downs Station; but it also suggests Mother and Uncles to the artist. A lovely evocation at $220,000.

A fair bit of Cooee’s stand is taken up by Kitty Napangka Simon’s surprising works. This concentration of single artists isn’t common in the Fair. Mostly it’s a scattergun approach. So I appreciated D’Lan Davidson’s emphasis on the colourful works of Daniel Walbidi and Tommy Mitchell’s swirls. Melbourne’s blackartprojects has a handful of Robert Fielding’s photographs from the APY Lands. Sullivan and Strumpf offer a wall of variegated Tony Alberts, including his disappointing ‘Mid-Century Modern‘ series made with unidentified Warakurna artists “ or did he appropriate their designs? And the ultra-urban Chalk Horse Gallery shows just how varied a single object can be through a series of ‘Lighthouses‘ from Yindjibarndi elder, Clifton Mack.

Three installations were by Indigenous artists offering multiples “ Yhonnie Scarce had blown elegant glass balloons to lie in babies’ cribs beneath photos of graves of the dead following Britain’s atomic testing at Maralinga; Sabbia Gallery had brought in a mass of Bagu from the Girringun artists of FNQ, ceramic now being the favoured material for these quirky firesticks; and Ros Oxley has a wall-full of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s whitepaint pen patterns on acetate. Sadly, it’s rather tucked away.

Intriguingly, some of Nyapanyapa’s marks can be transported across time to those carved into Cooee Gallery’s beautiful 19th Century parrying shield “ one of the finest designs I’ve ever seen. This is an aspect of SC18 that makes it richer than almost any gallery show around the country “ the mix of contemporary and historical artworks. Shields popped up everywhere “ an increasing recognition that these anthropological objects have moved into the fine art class. Top of the historical pops though is surely the Micky Aruni painted-all-over sculpture of Bima “ the faithless wife who had an affair with her brother-in-law and brought death to the Tiwi. With downcast eyes, she might almost be looking ashamed!

I’ve listed a few top prices; down at the bottom end, there’s interest to be found at Cooee in an innovative new carver from Maningrida. Note the name, Joy Garlbin, for she’s brought a fresh, almost op-art perspective to her markings on fairly familiar Mimi figures.

And, talking of familiarity, I noted the sad absence of Perth’s Mossenson Gallery “ an SC visitor in the past, but maybe this time concentrating on its imminent celebrations of 25 years dealing.

Finally, on the subject of money, the recent Desert Mob event in Alice Springs seems to have expectations of tipping its takings over the million dollar record set last year. Not just an art market, there’s an exhibition curated by 31 Desert art centres which notched up almost half a million dollars in sales of 110 works over its opening weekend. And there are still 150 works to sell. Our first collectors were queuing in the Araluen foyer from 10am that morning in order to be the first through the doors to acquire the best new works from 257 Central Desert artists, enthused Art Centre Director Mark Crees.

PS – Sydney Contemporary 18 has just announced that it “attracted 29,000 collectors and art enthusiasts, whilst securing AUD$21million in artwork sales over the Fair’s 5 days. Approximately AUD$10million of the total 2018 sales will go to artists, who came from 30 different countries”.

I’d love to think that was true: but 47.6% of sales for the creators at such an expensive event for their dealers sounds like a stretch to me!