I was recently in London for the second annual auction of Aboriginal Art at Sotheby’s, curated by Tim Klingender. I was bidding on behalf of several clients and it was encouraging to see the market at work from an international perspective.  Although the results were uneven, there were several standout results which only the international market and an international brand could deliver.

Two broad shields were strategically placed at lots 1 and 2 to get the sale off with a bang.  When compared to their estimates, they appeared to achieve a good result; lot 1 reached its high estimate of £30,000 and lot 2 sold just above its low estimate at £22,500. In reality they sold well and truly below what they are actually worth.  With such strong international interest and broad appeal in these shields, it was surprising that they simply did not fire.  I am pleased to report, though, that both lots will be repatriated to Australia. This is one of the most pleasing aspects of my job.

The remaining artefacts all sold extremely well. Of particular note was the exceedingly rare Sydney sword club, lot 6, of which I had a similar example at my June exhibition this year. This sword sold for £10,000 against the expected £3,000-5,000.  Every other artefact exceeded expectations.

After such strong support for bark paintings at last year’s London sale, there was not quite the energy or support for the barks offered this time round and many went unsold or sold at reserve. Perhaps the works were priced too high, which discouraged buyers. In my opinion, apart from the artefacts, many of the pre-sale estimates were likely too bullish considering that we are rebuilding and establishing a fairly new market internationally. The barks were no exception.

The highlights of this section were lot 20 Jimmy Midjau Midjau’s Narrawan (The Rock Python) which sold just above its high estimate at £8,750, and lot 23 Daingangan’s Dancers at a Circumcision Ceremony which sold for £8,125.

If you’re interested in bark paintings, you should check out my recent post on why I think they are currently undervalued.

The Tiwi sculpture section (lots 29-39), on the other hand, sold very strongly.  Tim described the group as the finest selection ever offered at auction - which is arguable when considering the Sotheby’s sale in 1997, but it was certainly a good group.  Lot 29, Benedict Palmeiua Munkara’s Male and Female Figures of Purukapali and Bim, executed on Bathurst Island in the 1960s, was clearly the standout performer.  The fine pair appeared fully priced to begin with, but they did present very well in person and had the advantage of an excellent provenance, having been previously acquired by Mary Macha from the dispersal of Lord McAlpine of West Green’s Collection in the early 1990s.  The pair attracted a prolonged bidding battle between two phones before it was knocked down at £251,000.  This set a new auction record for both the artist and for a piece of Aboriginal sculpture.  A truly incredible result. 

Untitled, Purukapali by Mani Luki followed at Lot 30 sold well at £25,000, against estimates of £20,000-30,000 and a little later at lot 35, Tapara, The Moon Man by Aurangnamirri Wommatakimmi (Young Brook) sold for £13,750, against estimates of £4,000-6,000. 

Lot 40 unfortunately was withdrawn from auction, the feather adornment causing quarantine hold ups.  This is one of the disadvantages of exhibiting and selling overseas.  All other fine examples 41-46 sold at reserve, being fully estimated in the beginning.

Other highlights include the spectacular Papunya board by Shorty Lungkata - lot 51 which sold for £62,500 and  I can report, is going to a prominent overseas collection. Though a good result, this major board, by one of our Indigenous masters and painted at such a seminal period is surely worth far more.  Clearly there were still pockets of very good buying for the astute collector to be had at this sale.  Surprisingly, this was the only board that sold on the night, although I have been in discussions with several clients regarding post-sale negotiations of the other important paintings. The already high estimates of lots 52-54 and conversion from GBP to AUD is what thwarted buyers here.

The emphatic highlight of the sale was lot 60, Michael Nelson’s Five Stories 1984 which achieved a new auction record for any living Aboriginal artist when it sold for £401,000, more than doubling the pre-sale high estimate of £150,000-200,000. The painting came from the Estate of Gabrielle Pizzi Collection and was suggested to be the most highly exhibited and published Australian Indigenous work of art ever offered for sale.

The 1980s work comes from a typically difficult period to sell in Australia, simply due to taste and trend, but clearly the discernment of the international market is drawn to this more traditional palette and overtones. The painting was also a major component of the Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia exhibition which toured the US in 1988.  This exhibition is considered one of the primary driving forces of US interest in Aboriginal art.

This incredible result has the power to reshape the overall market moving forward and will have pundits reassessing their collections back at home, I’m sure. It also makes the NGA acquisition of Clifford Possum’s Wurlugulong in 2007 look all the more astute.

The auction was strong for works of historical importance and/or extensive exhibition history. Quite clearly the international market draws confidence much more clearly from these important facts.

Other strong results include a stunning work by Wimmitji, lot 64, which sold just over its low estimate at £22,500 and lot 71, by Papunya Tula artist, Mick Namarari smashing its £12,000-18,000 estimated to reach £32,500.

Interestingly, a series of figures (lots 76-82) from the Gabrielle Pizzi Collection, which typically don’t have as much support in Australia, were very strongly contested in London.  Yawk Yawk Fresh Water Mermaid Spirit at Barrhidjowkeng by Owen Yalandja sold for £30,000, against the expected £5,000-8,000 and three figures by Mick Kubarkku, all smashed their £5,000-8,000 estimates to reach £35,000 (lot 78), £28,750 (lot 79) and £32,500 (lot 80) respectively.

The auction ended on a spectacularly high note when a beautiful painting by Warlimpirrnga more than doubled its pre-sale expectations to sell for £167,000 and set a new auction record for the artist. The result was emphatically applauded by contemporary collectors and dealers alike and represented a particularly bright spot - as the work was executed by a living and working artist in Papunya. Warlimpirrnga also had a solo exhibition at the Salon 94 Bowery in New York last year, which may account for the high competition and indeed it was a US buyer who succeeded in buying the painting. 

Overall, the auction achieved £1,613,375 (AU$2.8m), representing a 55% increase in value from last year’s inaugural edition of the Aboriginal Art sale in London.

The sale results show clear and positive signs of an infant but expanding international market. Works of historical significance and/or strong exhibition history faired very strongly. Judging by a number of the record-breaking results, there can now be no doubt that Australian Indigenous art has broad international appeal. This annual sale represents an important factor in the reshaping of the Australian Indigenous art market and therefore the direction and discretion with selecting and estimating works should not be taken for granted (or we may find ourselves back where we started).

The market is certainly intrigued, let's hope that both Sotheby's and Tim persist.

*All results include Buyer’s Premium

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A Broad Shield
Lower Murray River, early 19th Century
Sold for £30,000 IBP

Nawarran (The Rock Python) 
Sold for £8,750 IBP

Untitled, Male and Female Figures of Purukapali and Bima
Sold for £251,000 IBP

Sandhill Dreaming
Sold for £62,500 IBP

Five Stories
Sold for £401,000 IBP

Sold for £167,000 IBP