As the Aboriginal art world gathers to commemorate the dynamic and influential career of auctioneer Tim Klingender, I’m going to offer a slightly more personal take. For it was very much at the same time in 1996 that the world first became aware of Tim as the Melbourne specialist for Sotheby’s ‘Fine Tribal Art and Aboriginal Bark Paintings’ sale in Sydney – tutored by Robert Bleakley – as I began to have the confidence to write widely about First Nations art and culture.

This would include at least 858 reports on Aboriginal Art Directory – anointed by Oxford Bibliographies as “an archive of the industry” – and a prophetic film, Art from the Heart?.

Two things stand out from that Sotheby’s sale – firstly that the ‘Fine Tribal Art’ from notable collections such as the Christensen was indubitably art, while the Barks, mostly being deaccessioned by Canada’s Glenbow Museum, didn’t yet have that accolade; and secondly, a forthcoming auction advertised at the back of the catalogue was for ‘Fine Aboriginal Art’, and Tim had clearly lined-up a significant Anatjarri Tjakamarra Cave Dreaming to kick things off. He already had his eye out for early Papunya boards.

A much less significant factor in that 1996 sale was item 580, a Groote Eylandt bark from the 60s; The Wind Makers, Artist Unknown. No idea what happened to it, but it turned up again in a 2002 Sotheby’s auction, and I bought it. For now Klingdender had upgraded the provenance to painted by Nandjiwarra Amagula c 1968, catalogued it with information about the importance of the winds for that remote island in the Gulf Carpentaria, and pushed up the price estimate.

He was beginning to develop what I believe was Tim’s real secondary speciality – valuing and promoting historic Aboriginal artworks.

And why would I jump on this bandwagon? Well, my apprenticeship to the culture had began on that same Groote Eyelandt in 1985 when I was invited by the late-lamented Aboriginal Cultural Foundation to be one of just a handful of whitefella guests at the second great pan-tribal dance festival held there. Something like a thousand traditional men and women proudly showing off the retained strength of each language group’s culture to the others. And MCing proceedings for the week was Nandjiwarra Amagula, Anindilyakwa elder, and, to my surprise, dedicated artist as well as cultural leader.

Mind you, Tim had already hit the headlines by then in his major speciality – knowing where the most significant works from contemporary Aboriginal art’s brief history were buried. Winkling them out, then getting full value for the vendor.

I refer in particular to Rover Thomas’s All that Big Rain Coming from Topside which had made $786,625 at a Sotheby’s auction in July 2001. That was then $300,000 more than the previous Aboriginal art record. As I wrote at the time in the Australian Art Market Report:
“A series of factors influenced the Big Rain price. It was a very big and fine painting – though not spectacular. It was the last piece to have been commissioned by Mary Macha in 1991, and she’d been a key influence on Rover’s career from its start in the early 80s. The NGA had been offered all that remained of her collection for a million dollars – but felt that this was the one piece the Gallery needed to complete its powerful assemblage that had made Thomas only the second Aboriginal artist to be accorded a solo show there. Being consummate auctioneers, Sotheby’s then made sure that there’d be some competition – a local buyer who pulled out at $500,000 and an American prepared to go to $600,000”.

For ‘Sotheby’s’ read Klingender. And add to the equation the name of NGA Director Brian Kennedy who wanted to make a splash in Aboriginal art – and Tim made sure he did.

A further point of interest is the name of the late Mary Macha. Much has been made of Tim’s ethical approach to his work, though perhaps it’s not usually emphasised that almost all his dealings were on the secondary market with buyers and sellers not the artists themselves. An exception was preparations for the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal which comissiond arteworks that raised funds for dialysis units in remote communities like Kintore and has lead to the the wonderful Purple House organisation and its travelling truck around the deserts. But there’s always been an ethical question mark in my mind about Macha. For she began her association with Aboriginal art in a WA government role as (possibly) the discoverer of Gija art (and Rover Thomas) in Warrmun. She went on to encourage it with supplies of boards and canvases. But she then mutated into a dealer, taking Thomas away from his Waringarri Art Centre to paint in Perth.

Would that be approved by ethicists today? Whatever, Klingender was certainly influential enough to ensure the acceptance of her provenance by the market and institutions.

By 2002, Tim was now Director of Aboriginal art at Sotheby’s and sales had risen from $400,000 for that first dedicated show in 1997 to $5.3m over a single day. A two-day auction was planned for 2003. With 60% of sales heading overseas, the international market had become a greater priority than the locals.

But how had this taken off? Clearly a touring event like Peter Sutton’s Dreamings show across the US in 1988 had been vital. But, interviewed in 2002, Tim pointed out that Sotheby’s had records going back to its1983’s Tribal Art sale, “So it’s no surprise that our most closely guarded secret is our database of collectors…we’ve got decades of names”, he told me.

Later he would tour Aboriginal art to Sotheby’s offices in London and New York to maintain the connection. He did the same for the legendary Laverty Collection – though now he was associated with Bonhams, Sotheby’s having deserted Australia. Klingender was their man, not any particular auction house.

Indeed, in 2009 he’d set up Tim Klingender Fine Art, allowing him to put on his own shows at commercial galleries such as Olsens and fairs such as Sydney Contemporary as well as returning to Sotheby’s as a consultant to hold annual auctions in first London, and then, more boldly in New York. He’d just held his fourth there, returning home to Sydney to fish as he put it on social media, where, sadly, he suffered a boating accident and drowned. But he’d managed US$762,000 for a Johnny Warangkula, US$444,000 for an Emily and US$190,000 for a Sally Gabori. Unhappily, old barks were less popular. “All the major works in the sale went to impressive international collections”, he told me happily – for that was almost as important to him as offering the best in the first place. He was very balanced.

It was through TKFA that Tim and I continued our commercial relationship. At Olsen’s in 2015 he offered Aboriginal Masters, including Emily of course, Mick Namarari and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Mawalan and Wandjuk Marika, Yirawala and Mawurndjul. But he also offered Susie Bootja-Bootja, Kanya Tjapangati and Cocky Wutjunga (painting a Wandjina with a breast!) – elevating them to masterdom. And then there was a bark, Artist Unknown who’d created an East Kimberley Landscape “acquired by a schoolteacher working in the East Kimberley the early 1970s”.

Hang on – Rover didn’t have his Goorirr Goorirr dream until 1974 and didn’t start dancing it with boards until the late 70s/early 80s. Who was painting that Country in the early 70s? Keen to show off the mountains, the boab trees and overhanging moons that turn up later in many Garnkiny/Moon Dreaming paintings by its Traditional Owners, Mabel Juli and the late Rusty Peters?

I’m happy to say Tim was confident enough of the dating to persuade me to buy the work and I attach it here in order to increase our chances of solving these mysteries. At Sydney Contemporary I was lead into buying a lovely set of miniature Tiwi Pukumani Poles, “possibly by Declan Apuatimi”. Having visited the real thing on the islands, I knew this was as close as I’d get to their reality, gradually becoming one with the nature. Tim knew his market.

So Tim Klingender will be greatly missed by collectors – whether buyers or sellers – by dealers and the artists whose prices he’s done so much to enhance, by institutions he’s advised, and by many in the industry for whom he’s invariably been such excellent, well-informed company.