1. Love it first
When asked by prospective clients what to consider first when buying an artwork, I tell them - you’ve simply got to love it or forget about it.
When a painting is hung in your home, and a significant amount of money has been exchanged for it, you are going to want to be around it, interact with it and engage with it. You don’t want to be frustrated or annoyed by it. Art has that power - it can go either way.
The interesting thing is that when you buy an artwork that you truly love and enjoy living with over the years, you can usually rely on that piece having a willing market if you ever decide to sell. I have witnessed this first-hand on the secondary market many times over the years.
Even though ‘Love it’ took the top ranking in this list, authenticity is the most important aspect when considering and valuing any artwork – particularly from an investment point of view.
Authenticity issues have plagued the Australian Indigenous art market in the past. In my opinion, the true extent of the issues has been greatly overstated by the Australian media. Forgeries exist in all forms of art (as we’ve seen lately with the high-profile Whiteley case here and the ‘Old Master’ forgeries currently unravelling overseas). It can be strongly argued that there are less issues of this nature within the Australian Indigenous art market than there is within the broader art market.
On the flip side though, this has actually strengthened the Indigenous Community Art Centre model which was initiated at Papunya in the early 1970s to ensure artists were looked after, fairly paid and the artworks were certified authentic.
To this day, this model remains the primary source of provenance for any reputable Indigenous art dealer or auction house. For this reason, I believe there is no safer area of investment in the Australian art market, particularly for contemporary Indigenous art, as long as this strong line of provenance is strictly adhered to (more on that in point 3).
This sense of security has nurtured a growing buyer confidence with contemporary Indigenous art and the authenticity issues that have been allowed to run rampant in the media are now being dispelled through a refined discernment in the marketplace.
When considering earlier works of art and artefacts which were created prior to the establishment of the Community Art Centres, a respected expert opinion is vital. Although there are less forgeries circulating through this segment of the market, it is important to know that what you’re buying is exactly what is described. This only comes through handling experience and expertise.
A solid link back to the artist via their Community Art Centre or primary representative is crucial to the value of an Indigenous artwork. Equally important is the confidence a solid provenance generates in the marketplace when it comes times to sell.
The 3 market segments for Indigenous art (Contemporary, Modern and Artefacts) each have a different process and weight of importance when it comes to establishing provenance. For a detailed look at each segment, check out my post The Importance of Provenance.
4. Historical Significance
Historical significance plays a huge role in steadily propelling the value of an artwork. An artwork’s historical origins, its place within the artist’s oeuvre and its exhibition history become important factors to consider in direct comparison with its peers.
When it comes to modern Indigenous art for example, nothing can compare to the historical importance of the early Papunya boards from the 1970s. These incredibly important artworks set the foundation for the entire contemporary Indigenous art movement and works by the ‘old masters’ of Papunya command premium prices on the secondary market.
It is also why so many collectors jump at the chance to have their artwork shown in an important institutional exhibition and/or publication - because this exposure greatly adds to the works historical significance and separates it from similar examples, thereby adding value. There is no greater example of this than the extraordinary result achieved last year at Sotheby’s auction in London, where Michael Nelson Jagamara’s Five Stories achieved £401,000 IBP after being marketed as the most reproduced and exhibited piece of Indigenous art ever.
Rarity will always be the steady driving force in any market, no matter what we are talking about. But in relation to the Australian Indigenous art market, it is the very reason that early artefacts (shields in particular) gained so much traction and value during the economic down-turn post GFC whilst the more volatile Contemporary movement (in which rarity is seen as playing a lesser role) lost so much ground.
The media incorrectly portrayed the Contemporary market as being oversaturated during this period, but the fact is there is a shortage of significant Contemporary Indigenous artworks available in the secondary market as collectors generally will hold onto these important works. However, rarity still plays a pivotal role in this segment of the market - if you cannot go out and buy another tomorrow, you will be more inclined to bid at auction and/or buy at a gallery today. It’s that simple.
The art market is driven by opportunity and if you have the opportunity of buying something that you may never get another opportunity to buy, you are more likely to pay a premium price comforted by the fact that the market will always be buoyed by its rarity.
The general feeling in the current Indigenous marketplace is ‘If it’s bigger, it’s better’ (or worth more). I strongly disagree. In fact some of the most treasured artworks and artefacts I’ve handled are petite, accomplished and refined.
In saying this, the market will currently pay more for an artwork if it is bigger (but not necessarily better), and therefore we need to take this into account when valuing Australian Indigenous art. With large contemporary (particularly Desert) paintings, size does play a greater role in value.
Even with artefacts, size can certainly influence value too. The reason on both counts is because size tends to give an artwork a greater presence which can establish a stronger engagement with its audience. This is why institutions with large and expansive spaces to fill will generally go for larger, very well-accomplished works - because they have to engage their audience and draw in the numbers.
As the outside market becomes more and more sophisticated, I think size will have a much less direct effect on value than it currently does, and size will become more of an indirect influence on value i.e. How does the size affect the artworks overall beauty, significance and importantly – composition?
Size does and should matter, but a sophisticated art market should not be like buying real estate - where there can be a direct value put on a property by the land's square meterage. We need to be squarely focussed on the beauty, quality and composition first.
Composition is critically important when valuing Australian Indigenous art as it relates directly to an artwork’s desirability.
As the majority of contemporary Australian Indigenous art can be regarded as abstraction (although this can be argued depending on which lens it is looked through), a works composition needs to be assessed through form, balance and the ‘it’ factor. ‘It’ is very difficult to put into words, but when an Indigenous painting or sculpture strikes a chord it can literally sing. An artwork either has ‘it’ or it doesn’t.
Artefacts are also now seriously considered for their form, balance and beauty and viewed much more like artworks than ever before.
Quality can relate to various aspects which in turn affect value. It can relate to the application of paint, the delicacy of a particular carving, the canvas, the paint used or even the framework it is mounted on. The overall quality of work that is being produced by a particular artist should also be valued when considering Australian Indigenous art.
An artist that is producing consistently great quality works for a Community Art Centre or one (and only one) well-respected representative are key elements when making acquisition decisions. Community Art Centres and/or the artist’s sole representative play this crucial role in controlling what the artist releases to market.
Obviously condition can greatly affect the value of any artwork - new or old. When making a significant decision, the artwork or object should be inspected thoroughly and when buying through an auction house or a gallery, a comprehensive condition report should be requested prior to settlement and any known restorations or repairs should be clearly stated in this report.
Need help establishing the value of your artwork or collection? Contact me for a complimentary consultation.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post and would like more industry insights and collecting tips sent to your inbox on the first of every month...