I understand that the art market can be a difficult place to navigate. 

The Australian Indigenous art market is no exception and that’s why I publish a new installment of the Art Market Insider Guide twice each year – to distill the results and key market activity into a concise report that will keep you informed.

There’s been quite a bit of action in the last 6 months so let’s get into it…

Market Overview

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve witnessed a more assured market that continues to build on the confidence and momentum of the previous few years. But this is not evident if you only look at the limited results from the auction industry within Australia.

That’s because most of the action has been led by the Private sector and by the Sotheby’s London auction in March. 

Let’s have a look at the local auctions first…

Auctions in Australia

LIN ONUS, 1948-1996, Fish, Ferns and Rocks, 1995, sold at Sotheby’s Australia for $793,000 (IBP)

Of the handful of Australian auctions featuring Indigenous art this year, several notable results include:

  • Lin Onus’s two monumental works which sold strongly at Sotheby’s Australia for $793,000 and $671,000 AUD respectively. These were two masterworks by the artist achieving justifiable results.

  • Emily Kame’s large work Desert Winter, 1994 sold well at Menzies for $218,750 AUD.

  • Michael Cook’s suite of 14 photographs, Civilised 2012 sold at D+H for $86,000 AUD. This is only the second work by the young Indigenous artist to reach the secondary market.

MICHAEL COOK, born 1968, Civilised, 2012, sold at Deutscher and Hackett for $85,400 (IBP)

Despite these fantastic results, with only a few top-tier local auction houses now running sales of combined Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous art - Deutscher + Hackett, Bonhams, and to a lesser extent, Sotheby’s Australia and Menzies, the quantity of Australian Indigenous art being offered on the open auction market is becoming less and less.  

This decline in number can be attributed to several factors, but most evident to me is that we simply take the significance of our most important cultural heritage for granted in Australia. The resulting Indigenous (and non-Indigenous for that matter) contemporary art market within Australia is small - it’s now the international collectors that are taking the key market role once again.

As collectors continue to be drawn to alternative methods of sale, it has been interesting to see all of the top-tier auction houses combine Indigenous and non-Indigenous art together under the one banner. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I see this as a very positive step - but only if it’s done right. Placement and selective curation still remains the key in generating success anywhere at auction.

As the overall market continues to strengthen I would hope that a little more consistent quality will show through at local auction again.

EMILY KAME KNGWARREYE, 1910-1996, Kame - Summer Awelye II, 1991, sold at Sotheby’s, London for $547,641 (IBP)

Auction in London

When you compare the above to Sotheby’s London, which held the only top-tier stand-alone Indigenous art auction for the year, the opposite can be seen - the quality shone through.

According to AASD, 7 out of the 10 highest auction prices for Indigenous artists this year were achieved in that London sale and over 75% of lots sold, bringing in $2,879,338 AUD including Buyer's Premium - apparently a new record for an auction of Australian Indigenous art held outside of Australia. 

There were a number of exceptional results in this auction:

TJUMPO TJAPANANGKA, circa 1926-2007, Wati Kutjarra at the Water Site of Mamara, 1990, sold at Sotheby’s, London for $132,923 (IBP)

  • Another monumental work by Emily Kame – Summer Awelye II, 1991 sold for the equivalent of $547,641 AUD.

  • Warlimpirrnga continues to shine achieving $166,153 AUD for a masterwork - Mamultjunkunya, 2009.

  • Tjumpo Tjapanangka’s Wati Kutjarra at the Water Site of Mamara, 2000 set a new artist secondary market record of $132,923 AUD.

But it wasn’t just the contemporary having all the fun in this sale - artefacts continue to be well supported by Australian and international collectors. For example an early broad shield from the Murray River region sold for $128,492 AUD to an Australian buyer and an unusually shaped New South Wales club with Pitt Rivers provenance, selling for $22,154 AUD to a telephone bidder.

I witnessed this sale first hand in London. The auction was full with over 60 attendees (not to mention the large bank of phone bidders) and the room was bristling with energy. The sale was well supported throughout and more often than not, artworks were selling well beyond the estimates - a theme not often seen at auction within Australia.

The overseas market, buoyed by an increasing awareness and strengthening dollar, have now seized the opportunity. The ship has begun to sail, and I fear many Australian collectors will simply miss the boat.

The London sale will continue to help reshape the revitalised market moving forward.

Private Sales

Along with this success and the renewed global awareness that the London auction helps create, I can report that the Private Market of Australian Indigenous art is now booming.

MICK NAMARARI, 1926-1998, Sandhill Dreaming, 1972, 46 x 34 cm, sold by D’Lan Davidson by Private Treaty sale for an undisclosed price.

My business has achieved over $4million in Private Sales of Australian Indigenous art over this past financial year. This includes outstanding results from our most recent Annual Catalogue exhibition, Significant, which was close to 70% sold and a number of noteworthy results achieved:

  • A rare South East Australian broad shield sold to an undisclosed Australian institution for $85,000 AUD.

  • Two early boards - one by Long Jack Phillipus sold for $65,000 AUD and an example of Johnny Warangula’s earliest known Water Dreamings sold for $60,000 AUD respectively.

  • Urban Indigenous was also well supported - Danie Mellor's A Trace of History (Of Death and Resurrection), 2010 selling for $35,000 AUD and the iconic 'Kookaburras' by Brook Andrew setting a new secondary market record for that series too.

But it was the consistency and depth in the buying pool for this exhibition, from collectors around the world, that encourages me most.

And I can also report exceptional Private Treaty sales for major works by Mick Namarari (illustrated), Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Warlimpirrnga (illustrated), George Tjungurrayi and Ginger Riley (to name just a few).

This level of quality rarely makes it to open auction market these days, these top-level sales are taking place privately between buyers and sellers who prefer the discreet nature of these transactions - particularly for the benefit of the artwork involved.  (If you'd like to learn more about the advantages of private sale, check out my post The Fastest Growing Market Sector Nobody Talks About.)

WARLIMPIRRNGA, born circa 1958, Untitled, 2013, 152 x 183 cm, sold by D’Lan Davidson by Private Treaty sale for $95,000 AUD

National & International Exhibitions

I am thrilled to report several major exhibitions and new galleries dedicated to Australian Indigenous art opening very soon:

  • The Old Masters - Touring around China from 3 July will be 150 rare barks and objects from the National Museum of Australia collection. The exhibition will feature works from western, central and eastern Arnhem Land created between 1948 and 1985.

  • I am the Old and the New - a survey of the master bark artist, John Mawurndjul is opening at the MCA in Sydney on 6 July and running till 23 September. I will definitely be making a trip to to see that one.

  • Swiss art collector Berengere Primat will open Foundation Opale - Europe's only institution dedicated to exhibiting Australian Indigenous art in Switzerland in June 2019. The gallery curator, Georges Petitjean, said that growing interest in Indigenous art has driven the need to have a specific gallery space in Europe.

The Australian Indigenous art market can draw from this revitalised interest and confidence and with the international market clearly continuing to grow - it's only the beginning. 

D’Lan Davidson.

My Significant: Annual Catalogue exhibition has now closed but you can still see available works here: