When news broke at Sydney Contemporary that Bill Nuttall at Niagara Galleries had just sold Rover Thomas’ Kukatja, Wangkatjanka/ Woolanguwa for $300,000, there was a collective industry cheer. Not only is the stalwart dealer highly regarded and well-liked, but the important work was crisp, rewarding and thoroughly deserving of the result.
It also perfectly sums up the mood of the market over the last 6 months.
The demand this year, particularly internationally, has been steadily increasing in all segments of the Indigenous art market. And I believe this is just the beginning of a more assured and consistent growth cycle. So let’s take a closer look...
Australian Indigenous Art at Auction
When you look at the total auction results for Indigenous art in Australia so far this year ($4.74 million to date), you could be forgiven for thinking the overall market isn’t all that strong when compared to previous years. But with several important auctions and a number of significant private sales still pending, this year has been a most productive year, it just hasn’t appeared that way at auction.
So with all other areas in the market firing for Australian Indigenous art, what’s going wrong at auction? The problem, in my opinion, stems from the trend in placing increasingly low auction estimates for important works.
Even though the secondary market for Australian Indigenous art took a positive turn well over 2 years ago, Australian auction houses still seem intent on a ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to placing practical estimates for significant artworks at auction.
I understand that getting these estimates enticingly right is just so important, but when you begin to analyse the secondary market results, and the fact that Australian auctions are clearly losing market share, estimates that are set too low are now the main point of contention when selling significant Indigenous works by auction in Australia.
Why would a consignor take something significant to auction with estimates of say 40-60k or 60-80k, when they can sell it by private sale for $80,000 or $100,000 with less commission payable and no risk?
The trend is increasingly pushing many of the most important artworks towards private sale.
Deutscher and Hackett recently had what was described as a successful auction for Australian Indigenous art (combined with non-Indigenous art), achieving over 83% sold by volume. But when you begin to dissect the results, that success can only be skewed so far.
In my opinion, the estimates for two of the most significant works by Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye where set far too low and did not generate spirited bidding (which is what low estimates are designed to do – ‘set them low and watch them go’ as they say). Well they didn’t ‘go’ and two very lucky buyers bought exceptionally well.
The blue late period Emily which was featured in the Emily book, was an absolute steal at the price paid - $54,900 including Buyer’s Premium.
For great Indigenous artworks, auction houses need to start placing firm but realistic auction estimates - in line with the market - or risk losing further market share. It’s that simple.
Another auction to make waves (albeit for the wrong reasons) was the unprecedented stoppage and seizure of an artefacts sale at Leski Auctions in September.
I’ve had many calls about this, and as it will be a matter before the courts, I won’t comment on the details.
But I will say that from our whitewashed history, since European settlement, Governments have consistently put in place legislation that thwarts stability and viability for the culture in the modern world - legislation that only further ostracises the people.
Surely we are beyond this.
If a government (state or federal) was truly intent on generating reconciliatory measures with our Indigenous people, it would put in place legislative measures that are designed to actually allow the people and their culture to flourish - keeping the culture strong.
How this unprecedented chain of events will unfold on the broader market and beyond is yet to be seen - the artefact market appears to have gone to ground already. But the overall market is now more matured and the sophisticated collector understands the importance that this political ‘back story’ generates - which in time, only makes the artwork and their story all the more powerful.
Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art
As I’ve already given an overview on this years Sydney Contemporary - you can check out Michael Bailey’s review from the AFR here - you already know that contemporary and urban Indigenous art performed very well, arguably the strongest segment of all at the fair.
And it wasn’t just me - Alcaston Gallery, Tim Klingender Fine Art, Niagara Galleries and Utopia Art, along with the majority of other Indigenous art dealers reported a marked increase in sales this year when compared to previous years.
With this matured market comes discernment - I’ve witnessed private sales of contemporary Indigenous art continue to grow month after month.
When a large canvas by Emily Kame Kngwarreye and a superb 1973 board by Anatjari Tjakamarra appeared in Sotheby’s Australia’s Decorative Arts sale – recently rebranded as ‘Treasures’ – I questioned the timing and the placement of these works at the viewing.
Why these two significant paintings were placed in a decorative arts sale is beyond me. And with the results now in (Emily did not sell and the Anatjari sold cheaply post-sale for $61,000 including buyer’s premium) it becomes even more bewildering to me.
But when you scratch beneath the surface, realising Sotheby’s Australia once had a strong-hold on the entire Australian Indigenous art market and has now clearly lost control and market share - this only bodes well for the Sotheby’s London auction moving forward.
All attention will now be on this important sale. Not only giving international exposure, but pitching Australian Indigenous art against some of the finest contemporary art in the world - where it should be.
Australian Indigenous Art by Private Sale
Private sales have been driving the market in the first 3 quarters of 2018 - I can report over $4million in private sales this year alone.
And even with the uncertainty that a change in Prime Minister creates, along with other market volatility, this latest December quarter will be no different mainly because of continued International buying strength. I have already recorded early sales of major works by Warlimpirrnga, Tommy McRae, Shorty Lungkata and a significant Albert Namatjira for this quarter.
I have witnessed strong sales by other leading dealers also; Tim Klingender sold a handsome early Papunya board by Johnny Warangula for $200,000, Alcaston sold a major large-scale work by Sally Gabori, Utopia Art sold a 6x8 work by Yukultji for $110,000, not to mention the highly publicised record sale of John Mawurdjul’s Ngalyod that I sold for $140,000 in September.
In the lead up to the Christmas rush, I’d like to personally thank all of you that have helped support and enjoy this vibrant market that we all love and cherish.
If you have any queries or need any advice with buying and selling, feel free to contact me at anytime.
P.S. I’ve just released a small collection of important Indigenous artworks for private sale - be the first to see them here: