One of my most popular posts last year was a list of the Top 10 Most Collectable Indigenous Artists (if you missed it you can check it out here).
With the noticeable shift in market interest to Contemporary artists over the last 6-12 months, I thought a perfect follow up to that original article would be to focus on the Top 10 Most Collectable Contemporary Indigenous Artists on the Australian market right now.
(Before we begin I should say that I define ‘contemporary’ in the Indigenous art market as work created post-1980. This period was a major turning point in the Australian Indigenous art movement - market awareness was rapidly increasing and works created after this time were generally made with the intention of sale to that market. And let’s not forget that international sales include the likes of Basquiat and Rothko and even Warhol in their Contemporary sales, whose works date even earlier.)
1. Rover Thomas
Rover takes the top spot as he is the only contemporary Indigenous artist whose prices have genuinely bounced back to pre-GFC levels.
Two significant works that have appeared at auction in recent years have served as a barometer for his market – Djugamerri and Bolgumerri, 1991, from the Laverty Collection in 2017 sold for $317,200 IBP and Ruby Plains Massacre 1, 1985 from the Luczo Collection in 2016 sold for $366,000 IBP – both at Deutscher and Hackett. Both were superb works, estimated well and achieved strong results which were in line with what they were acquired for just prior to 2008.
Historically speaking, Rover also occupies 3 of the top 10 prices ever achieved for an Australian Indigenous artist, as listed on the Australian Art Sales Digest.
Quality of composition and solid provenance are the two key factors that discerning buyers should be aware of when buying a work by Rover Thomas. Warringari and the late Mary Macha are considered the premium original sources for works by Rover Thomas.
2. Lin Onus
Lin Onus has appeared in AASD’s Top 10 Indigenous artists every year for the past 7 years and his works are frequently the highlight of any auction in which they appear.
There has been incredible growth in the prices for Lin Onus’ work over the last few years. In fact, a new auction record for the artist was achieved this year, again at Deutscher and Hackett, when Riddle of the Koi, 1994 sold for $561,200 IBP.
Onus certainly deserves the accolades; his work is exceptional and broadly appealing – drawing influence from both his Scottish and Aboriginal heritage to create his large and distinct canvases.
His most sought after works are his well resolved ‘reflection paintings’ that feature hints of traditional ‘rarrk’ patterning and Indigenous motifs. These works show no signs of slowing down.
But I also greatly enjoy the earlier and perhaps more historically significant works. These works are more overtly ‘Traditional’ and sometimes over-looked at auction, but I feel they will hold the most potential in time as this market matures.
3. Emily Kame Kngwarreye
In my last Top 10, Emily took the number one position as she has been a steady driving force for the Indigenous art market since the 1990s. She has slipped back a couple of spots simply due to a number of recent mixed auction results.
However, all eyes were on the recent Bonhams Australian & Aboriginal auction which included an enormous canvas from the collection of Elton John carrying an extremely conservative estimate of $150,000-250,000. The work sold for $414,800 IBP. This result has the potential to catapult Emily back to the top spot and all great works by the artist should benefit.
Emily remains one of the most identifiable and loved Indigenous artists and produced a remarkable 3,000 paintings in her brief, 8 year painting career. Her earlier works that have Delmore Gallery provenance tend to perform best at auction, but her late period works with Rodney Gooch provenance have significant potential for their added dynamic flare.
4. Daniel Walbidi
Walbidi also featured in my Top 10 last year as his rise in popularity during his (thus far) short career, particularly since winning the NATSIAA award in 2014, has been meteoric.
Walbidi has a unique style and technique and has produced limited works, creating a huge pent up demand in the marketplace. The artist is very well represented by Short St Gallery, which helps maintain quality, control and continued desirability.
Walbidi set a new auction record in 2016 when Kirriwirri, 2013 sold at Deutscher and Hackett for $79,300 IBP and, without exaggeration, I could have sold Wirnpa, 2017 (featured on the cover of my 2017 Annual Catalogue) 10 times over when I released the catalogue late last month.
I don’t think we’ve yet seen anywhere near the peak of Walbidi’s prices. There is a consistent momentum in his market and with greater international exposure to come; this artist’s potential seems unparalleled.
5. Paddy Bedford
Paddy Bedford’s works have also had some mixed results at auction and his market has tapered off somewhat since my last Top 10 (of which he was number 3).
Some of this inconsistency can be put down to inconsistent estimations placed at auction – it’s that simple. After success at auction, specialists need to give the market consistency, so that it is fostered and built up with confidence.
I don’t think this will be a long term trend however, merely the ‘calm before the storm’ with growth set to resume within 12-18 months. The strong result for Mind Gap, 2005 from the Laverty sale at Deutscher and Hackett last year confirms that his best works will hold their value.
Of all contemporary Indigenous artists, Bedford’s works have been the most consistent performers post-GFC. Being the only Australian Indigenous artist to have a complete catalogue raisonné does wonders for market confidence in this artist’s work.
6. Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri
With the phenomenal result achieved at Sotheby’s, London in September 2016, Warlimpirrnga cemented his place as one of the most successful living Australian Indigenous artists. The 183 x 244 cm untitled canvas sold to an American collector for £167,000 IBP, more than double its pre-sale estimates.
This result came as little surprise to those of us who’d witnessed Warlimpirrnga’s burgeoning international reputation – he’d had his first solo US exhibition at Salon 94 in New York in 2015 (which was a resounding success) and his work had also been included in Dennis and Debra Scholl’s No Boundaries, a major exhibition that toured the US the same year.
With another major work likely set to appear at Sotheby's London auction this year, it is likely a new bench mark will be set for this artist. Well resolved works with Papunya Tula Artists provenance should benefit from these internationally broadcast results.
7. Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Another Papunya Tula artist, and one that I believe is seriously undervalued at present.
Results for Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s work have been mixed at auction in recent years but his best works consistently achieve top prices. You don’t have to look back too far to see that this major artist was regularly selling for significant results at auction.
Take for example the result for his superb Untitled (Rain Dreaming at Nyunmanu), 1994 that sold from the first Laverty Collection auction at Bonhams in 2013; the masterpiece sold for $219,600 IBP and is now in the collection of the National Gallery. Or Untitled, Tjunginpa Tjukurrpa (Spinifex Hopping Mouse Dreaming) which doubled its estimates at the London Sotheby’s auction in 2016, selling for £32,500 IBP.
There is significant growth potential for the artist’s strong contemporary works on the secondary market. The major collectors are looking for the sublime 'Mouse' and 'Wallaby' Dreaming paintings that have subtle variational tones with clarity.
8. Tommy Mitchell
Tommy Mitchell is making his first appearance in my Top 10 list as I am seeing great potential in the market for his work.
Mitchell had only a brief painting career before he sadly passed away in 2013. With only a limited number of works sold on the secondary market (13 listed on AASD) and a small number to surface in the future, he remains the most affordable within my Top 10….for now.
A new secondary market record has been set with the sale of the artist’s excellent Walu, 2009 from my 2017 Annual Catalogue exhibition and I’ve noted several top collectors acquiring his work in recent years. Buoyed by his rise in popularity and the increasing prices, more collectors will be encouraged to put their works to market for sale.
9. Bill Whiskey
I’ve witnessed strong support for works by Bill Whiskey at auction in the last several years and yet his work still remains largely affordable, with major works priced at comfortable and clearly sustainable levels.
An excellent and large example could be bought on the secondary market for between $20,000-80,000.
Much like Paddy Bedford, I feel it is likely to be the 'calm before the storm' and with a clear focus on his strongest works, this artist is one to consider. Whiskey’s works are bold yet calming at the same time.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until we recently hung Rockholes Near the Olgas, 2008 from my current exhibition, that the gallery quietened down and each work interrelated well with each other. This was an attribute of the artist’s character whilst he was alive – an attribute still present in his work today.
10. Tommy Watson
Tommy Watson experienced perhaps the most meteoric rise through the early-mid 2000s and then collapse on the secondary market by 2014 - which was largely lead by his career direction and market representation at that time.
Lately, I have noticed several significant acquisitions as well as a steadying auction support for Watsons work. Now that his market has settled, Watson remains one of the greatest living Australian painters. His earlier works are held in all major Australian institutions.
However, Indigenous community is just so important on many levels (some of which we may truly never understand), and none more important than for the preservation of this significant culture. In my opinion, this incredible artist should undo some of his career choices, and return home to community to finish his career strongly – where it all began.
A few surprises perhaps, as well as some industry veterans, but all warrant a second glance should a strong work come onto the market.
There are many other notable artists that I’d love to add to this list; Carlene West for example and the incredibly strong group of Urban Indigenous artists like Brook Andrew, Danie Mellor, Tony Albert, Jonathan Jones, Rekko Rennie, Blak Douglas and of course Richard Bell (some less accessible than others - but all making waves).
It’s too early to analyse the secondary market prospects for these current and practising artists, with too few, or no results to go on at this stage. These are all definitely names to look out for in the future.
What is perfectly clear to me though is that we are now in the beginning stages of a new market cycle for contemporary Australian Indigenous art (after 8-10 years of negative or negligible growth).
If you’re thinking of collecting in this most exciting area within the Australian art market, I would encourage you to do your homework (provenance and quality is key), get strong industry leading advice and most of all – buy what you love.
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