For the last 20 years the market for Australian Indigenous artefacts has shown steady growth with objects of beauty, rarity and a solid provenance in strong demand among a focused group of collectors and institutions.
The market has broadened over the past several years with artefacts now being viewed as artworks in their own right. Taking the form of a shield, club, boomerang or any other tool developed over generations to cope with the harsh Australian environment, these objects, when placed in a gallery or private collection, easily hold their own form alongside paintings and other sculpture.
While each piece was made with a practical purpose (or several), they were often adorned with spiritual symbolism and patterns that served to strengthen the users faith in their tool. This, combined with the simplicity and highly functional design of each hand-crafted piece, makes the Indigenous artefact a truly beautiful thing to hold and behold.
Unlike with paintings and other sculpture, where provenance establishes a clear line from current owner to the artist, provenance associated with artefacts is desirable but not 100% necessary - a good artefact is what it is. A trained eye can spot a fake from a mile away – so it is vitally important to get trusted advice before embarking on any major purchase.
As you would expect though, a great provenance can add significant value to an artefact. For example, in 2013 while I was at Sotheby’s, I consigned this group of artefacts formerly from the Collection of Roderick Kilborn. The group was estimated and auctioned at AU$15,000-20,000 but when combined with the exceptional provenance (ex-Kilborn family) they sold to an Australian institution for over $75,000.
This rare shovel and club below have an interesting provenance; they were collected by a train driver working on the line from Menindee to Sydney in 1930 (though these artefacts would predate this considerably).
The shovel is particularly rare. It has been made with one piece of wood, cut in its basic shape from the outer trunk of a tree and then painstakingly chiselled along the grain to achieve the curved head. As well as the thin sharpened end, designed for digging soil, the handle would also have been used for digging for food such as edible tubers, small marsupials, reptiles, termites and honey ants. The shovel appears to have an animal fat (emu?) rubbed all over it, which when traditionally applied would help preserve the timber from drying out - making it waterproof.
I am asserting that it is most likely that the pair were carved by the same traditional owner.
Nineteenth century artefacts like these, made of wood, bark or any other organic material, are rare because, when left in their natural environment, they inevitably break down over time. Older pieces that have survived intact were usually those found and collected by anthropologists or people who appreciated their inherent beauty and aesthetic.
These days good pieces can still be bought for as little as AU$1,000 depending on their age, rarity and condition (the artefacts I am offering this month range between AU$1,000 – 10,000).
If you are interested in collecting, look for early artefacts – nineteenth century or earlier – with stone-carved designs and beautiful form. The keys to a good investment are rarity (age) and beauty (form) combined with a historically significant provenance (traceability). Above all – get good advice.
Like any artwork, if kept in a stable environment, Indigenous artefacts will provide satisfaction, enjoyment and steady growth in value for many years to come.
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