Peter Fish reviews the Sotheby’s auction:

Retired NSW politician and tribal art buff Richard Jones was as pleased as punch at Sotheby’s Aboriginal and Oceanic Art sale at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Monday.

The striking north-east Queensland hardwood rainforest shield he purchased at the Culgruff House sale in Paris in June last year for $45,200 brought a record price for an Aboriginal artefact – $70,000, or $84,000 including buyer’s premium. His other offering, a fine Victorian spear thrower engraved with traditional motifs, brought $19,000 on the hammer. Despite the record, the rainforest shield sold on its lower estimate; it had been expected to fetch up to $100,000.

Other vendors were not so lucky, with a number of works selling below their lower estimate – or less than half the lower estimate in some cases – and others going unsold.

No surprises there, given the financial meltdown has already slashed prices for all sorts of art. Prices at key London contemporary art sales this month were on average only 56 per cent of the lower estimates, Bloomberg News reports, with works by top names such as Andy Warhol, Lucio Fontana and Lucian Freud going unsold, casualties of over-optimistic valuations.

At Monday’s Aboriginal sale prices brought in $3.68 million, compared with an estimate range of $7.61 million to $11.04 million.

Trends were hard to spot, yet there were plenty of bright spots. A 19th century eastern Victorian parrying shield inscribed by the Kurnai artist and elder Billy McLeod, also known as Tulaba, sold for an impressive $50,000 ($61,200 including premium). It didn’t quite make it into the sale’s top 10 but could still be a record for a parrying shield, in my book. A rare 19th century crescent-shaped Queensland bowl also impressed with $28,000 ($33,600 including premium), which is almost certainly a salesroom high for an Aboriginal bowl. Another hardwood shield with the Culgruff House provenance brought an above-estimate $30,000 ($36,000 with premium.)

Many of the bark paintings formerly owned by Jerome Gould, a US businessman, took a buffeting. Apparently offered without reserves, several went for bargain prices, notably Jimmy Ngainjmirra’s A Mermaid-Yelelban, knocked down for $3000, compared with an estimated $12,000 to $18,000, while Djambalula’s Mimih Ceremony board sold for $10,000, half the lower estimate.

But Gould’s Mureiana figure attributed to Arnhem Land artist Lipundja won a top bid of $27,000 while his superbly carved Maori feather box was bid to $48,000.

Top price overall was $250,000 ($300,000 including premium) for a group of seminal Pintupi drawings from Papunya in 1971 – the dawn of the desert art dot-painting renaissance. As with many other lots, these went to local institutions.