MICHAEL NELSON JAGAMARA, born 1948, Five Stories. Sold at Sotheby's in London, September 2016 for £401,000 IBP

When a painting titled Five Stories by Papunya artist, Michael Nelson Jagamarra came up for auction recently at Sotheby’s in London, it was surprising to see it given pre-sale estimates of £150,000-200,000. 

A quick glance through Jagamara’s AASD entry will show that the highest price previously achieved for his work on the secondary market was AU$17,080 – which was for a painting sold at Mossgreen in 2012 and the next two highest results were way back in 2004. 

In the end the Sotheby’s estimates actually looked somewhat conservative and many in the industry were scratching their heads when the painting was eventually knocked down for over double its high estimate to achieve £401,000 IBP (AU$687,875) - an auction record for any living Australian Indigenous artist.

How did this astronomical result come about?  What drove the buyers to bid so feverishly for the painting at auction?

All is revealed in the catalogue entry – whose exhibition history and literature listing reads like an encyclopaedia of just about every significant exhibition and publication of Indigenous art since the market began in full swing in the 1980s. 

In fact, the catalogue notes that Five Stories may well be the most reproduced work by any Australian Indigenous artist - ever.  And, among the many other important exhibitions listed, it was also a major component of the Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia which toured the US in 1988 – a ground-breaking exhibition credited for being one of the primary driving forces of US interest in Aboriginal Art.

Added to the impressively long list of credentials is the conversely short and highly desirable provenance:

Painted at Papunya in October and November in 1984
Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, Melbourne

It doesn’t get much tidier than that.

The result for this painting is the perfect example of why the provenance and history of an artwork is so important – not only to its value but to the confidence it can generate in the market.

Put simply, provenance creates certainty in the marketplace.

Fortunately, provenance in the Indigenous art market can be much clearer and straight forward than other forms of Australian non-Indigenous and international art, if the right steps are taken and the collector receives the right advice. 

In this post I will outline the key steps to help guide you through the process.

First of all, you need to be aware of the types of documentation that establish provenance. Ideally your artwork will have one or several of the following:

  • Receipt or invoice with date from sale

  • Certificate of Provenance/Authenticity

  • Transfer of ownership documents (including bank transfers to previous owner)

  • Auction history and inclusion in auction catalogues

  • Exhibition catalogue and inclusion in any exhibition (both private and/or institutional)

  • Illustrated in books and publications

  • Inventory numbers (both private and institutional)

  • Documented appraisals

When it comes to establishing provenance for the 3 market segments for Indigenous art (Contemporary, Modern and Artefacts), each has a different process and weight of importance.

NAATA NUNGURRAYI, The Soakage Water Site of Unkunya, West of the Pollack Hills in Western Australia, 2005. Sold at Deutscher and Hackett in October for $146,400 IBP

Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art (1980 - now):

I only recommend buying contemporary Australian Indigenous art through the Community Art Centre that handles the artist’s work, or the primary representative that solely handles the artist’s work (when an artist is not represented by a community art centre).

This creates certainty by drawing a clear line of authorship directly from artist to representative or art centre through to the primary collector. You can be sure that an artwork has been ethically handled and that the artist has been remunerated adequately for their work.

I would not advise buying outside of the art centre model unless a respected representative has exclusivity to an artist’s work. It’s that simple.

A collection of Tiwi ironwood carvings from the Estate of Marianne Baillieu. From my BARK + IRONWOOD exhibition, November 2016, sold to an Australian Museum

Modern Australian Indigenous Art (1950s-1980):

For early barks, Hermannsburg watercolours, Papunya boards and sculpture/artefacts made for sale, there is a less strict necessity for Art centre provenance - the simple reason being that they rarely existed in these earlier times.

Papunya Tula Artists is the one exception, as it was established in the early 70s. Still, strong provenance can not only solidify authenticity, it can add value to this segment of the market. 

Take for example early Papunya boards. If a particular work has strong provenance, for example from Geoffrey Bardon, Stuart Art Centre or PTA, this will generate more certainty than say an equally weighted work which has little or no provenance.

History and auction records will strongly support this. In many cases artists were, quite rightly, painting outside of the confines of these centres, but these works which have no traceable history have significantly less market value, even when the work is clearly authentic.

For early bark paintings and sculptures (1950s-70s) made for sale, provenance becomes even less of a necessity because, sadly, major works were never greatly valued in those early days and generally the first line of provenance would have been lost or not passed on as a work has traded hands.  

Early mission documentation can help with establishing artist’s names and story details, but does not generally add much value to a work. But important collection history by several of the founding collectors can, however.

Here is where clear ownership from the primary collector plays a big role – take for example the collection of 14 Tiwi ironwood carvings I will be exhibiting at Charles Nodrum Gallery in November (see catalogue here).  These figures are all beautiful examples from the period, but collectively are an extraordinary group, carved in the 1970s and in fantastic condition.  But an added drawcard for the group is that they were all collected personally in the 70s by the well-known and respected gallerist, Marianne Baillieu and they’ve remained in her possession until her recent passing.  This desirable provenance quickly attracted the interest of an Australian museum which recently decided to acquire the whole group for its collection.

Other primary collectors such as Dorothy Bennett, Sandra Le Brun Holmes, Dr Scougal, who were all active in the 1950s and 60s, can add significant value to a work. This provenance can be very important, but it also needs to be provable which can be done through a letter or by direct descent.

A Fine and Early Broad Shield , early nineteenth century. Sold at my Annual Exhibition in June 2016 for $85,000

Artefacts (1800s-1950)

With artefacts, unfortunately in most cases much of the greatly important collection history has been lost over time. This is the reason that when an object has 19th century collection history, this provenance can add the most value to a work out of all three segments of the market.

Provable provenance for artefacts becomes less an authenticity issue than it does establishing value.

Take for example in 2013 while I was at Sotheby’s, I consigned a group of artefacts formerly from the Collection of Roderick Kilborn. The group was estimated and auctioned with estimates of AU$15,000-20,000 (based purely on the object’s intrinsic value), but when combined with the exceptional provenance (ex-Kilborn family) they deservedly sold to the National Museum of Australia for well over $75,000.

And if an artefact has proven Captain Cook provenance for example, well the sky’s the limit with regards to achievable price.   But of course it always depends on whether the origins can be proven.  My best tip in this collecting area is to consult with an expert. 

If the market downturn in 2007/2008 created one positive for the Indigenous art market, it is that buyers are now incredibly discerning.  With the market showing clear signs of strengthening, the provenance of artworks appearing on the secondary market has never been more important. 

In any of the three segments of the Indigenous art market, a trusted specialist is your best line of defence when making buying decisions. If you’re not 100% sure about a work, get good advice.

For more information on buying Australian Indigenous art, contact me to discuss at any time.

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