In September of this troubled year, fans of Australian artist Lindy Lee were delighted to hear that she’d been commissioned by the National Gallery in Canberra to created a 13-tonne, 4m-high sculpture called ‘Ouroboros‘ at a cost of $14m. Of course, the material and construction costs will cover a fair bit of that price, but carping critics thought that an awful lot of work by other artists could have been obtained for that sort of money.

But could it? For the Freedom of Information efforts of ‘The Australian’ newspaper journalist, Remy Varga have revealed that the NGA has a tendency to pay top price when it comes to collecting Australian art – even First Nations art. Back in November, ‘The Oz‘ published two lists of recent purchases and donations, though the prices on the latter list were missing. Of course, two valuers have to agree when a donation is tax deductible. But I suspect that the ATO/taxpayers were probably up for sums matching those on the the purchases list.

Which was headed by two overseas monsters – Jordan Wolfson’s reportedly kinky ‘Body Sculpture‘ for $US4.5m. And Tracey Emin’s bronze ‘When I sleep‘ for $1.1m, one of 16 works from the English artist. Do you get a discount for bulk? Clearly Lindy Lee’s recent patriotic commission caps them both.

But then comes a Gordon Bennett canvas from 2002 costing $540,000. I wonder what ‘Notes to Basquiat : Death of Irony’ cost in 2002 when the artist was alive to enjoy it? Fellow Queenslander Richard Bell must be rubbing his very-much-alive hands together with glee since his ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow‘ brought in a munificent $391,500. Both were sold by Milani Gallery.

Jonathon Jones – another Blak rather than classical artist – comes next in the pantheon; $300,000 for ‘walang-wunga.galang’. This would seem to be the set of grindstones Jones and Stan Grant Snr created for the 2020 Tarnanthi exhibition, accompanied by the mellow sound of stone-on-stone grinding. They looked perfectly placed in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany. But how will they look in an art gallery, I wonder? No gallery took its percentage from this sale.

The late Ginger Riley is the first remote artist on the list to benefit from the NGA’s repricing of their work. His ‘My Mother’s Country‘ raised $196,800 at a Bonhams auction, and as it was a 1996 work, no Resale Royalty accrues to the artist’s estate. But it was certainly good for holders of his works who might be tempted to sell.

Dr Danie Mellor has not one but two works on the NGA’s list. His ‘Landstory‘ raised $180,909 and ‘A gaze still dark (a black portrait of intimacy)‘ tipped the scales at $47,273 – both via Tolarno Galleries.

After the Museum and Gallery of the NT held on to the Tjanpi Toyota that had just won the $40,000 top Telstra NATSIA Award, probably no one thought that woven desert grasses would ever achieve that sort of return again. But now the twelve ladies who created the ‘Seven Sisters/ Kungkarankalpa‘ for the NGA’s Women’s Show in 2020 have taken home $116,781 (a very strange sum that doesn’t divide by 7 or 12 easily!). Actually, it should be 8 – because the Sisters were of course always accompanied by the priapic Yurla, with evil intentions.

Back to the Blak – and Tony Albert appears next on the list with Sullivan & Strumpf’s 2021 sale of his ‘Conversations with Preston: Christmas Bells‘. At 3 by 4 metres, it’s big and I’m delighted to share it with readers in this Christmas season. Before Albert, Gordon Bennett, of course, sought to find a critical relationship with the pioneering Margaret Preston.

And then to Brook Andrew – who seems to have remained little noticed at the National Gallery if the fact that they’ve only just bought a print from his 1996 ‘Sexy and dangerous‘ edition of 20, for $89,091. As the sale is put down to Tolarno Galleries again, I have to assume that the artist has benefited rather than a smart early buyer. BTW, have you ever wondered what the Chinese calligraphy on the warrior’s chest might say? According to Ted Snell in ‘The Conversation‘, it means ‘female cunning’! He explains, “Andrew created ‘Sexy and dangerous’ around the time of the confrontation in Tiananmen Square, and hence it can be read as underscoring the need for resistance in the face of oppression. Is Andrew urging us to readjust our understanding of what it means to occupy a country whose sovereignty is made manifest in this image of the Aboriginal Chief?”. International politics at the NGA?

Two more Blak artists come next – a quite surprising $75,000 for Dale Harding’s ‘Know Them in Correct Judgement‘, and $65,455 For Christopher Pease’s ‘Target 3 – Souvenir‘. Pease has been around a lot longer than Harding. But Harding may have the benefit of Milani Gallery representation. For, next on the list is the first Indigenous woman artist – the Mildura-born Bonita Ely – who achieved a remarkable $65,000 for her ‘Murray River Punch’, documentation of a performance in 1980, which seems to have been exhibited at Milani in 2008.
Could it be that the NGA was jumping on to the excellent bandwagon of the Tate Modern’s selection of works by Dale Harding and Bonita Ely for its current London show, ‘A Year in Art : Australia 1992‘?

That’s it for the headline-makers. Some reasonable but not exceptional prices for current art-makers such as the Ken Sisters and Nonggirrnga Marawili and the recently passed Mrs N Yunupingu and Mavis Ngallametta.

So, thank you National Gallery for boosting the prices of Indigenous art. But some may recall the claims of Tim Klingender when at Sotheby’s, that he and the Gallery itself had somehow contrived to push the price of the late Rover Thomas’s ‘All that Big Rain Coming Down Top side‘ to almost $800,000 at auction in 2001 in order to set a record price for Aboriginal art.

However, this time ‘The Australian’ newspaper’s art correspondent Christoper Allen was less than impressed by the NGA’s buying spree: “Management has evidently lost sight of a strategic vision for the collection, bewitched by fashion, glamour and that particular intoxication with ideological gestures that we could call Political Cringe. Thus a great deal has been spent on Aboriginal art, but mostly on a number of strident contemporaries who are successfully monetising their sense of grievance”.

BTW, if you think you could curate the NGA’s First Nations collection differently, the opportunity exists until January 24th to apply to be its Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. That’s the boss, by the way “responsible for leading the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art team ensuring the continuing development, display, research, interpretation, and promotion of the world’s most significant collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art”. Nowhere does it say you have to be Indigenous to get the job, but ‘Affirmative Measures – Indigenous’ seem to apply.

Is this a job that will come in over Tina Baum, Curator of ATSI art for almost 17 years? Or will it be a promotion for her, I wonder?