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TOP 10 MOST COLLECTABLE CONTEMPORARY INDIGENOUS ARTISTS

In June each year I look back at the market activity and all major exhibitions held over the previous 12 months to come up with the top 10 most collectable contemporary artists – the main drivers as well as emerging talent - that I see as having the greatest potential and opportunity for growth.

On the back of Desert Painters of Australia, currently showing at Gagosian to critical acclaim, there’s a tangible energy in the market and I believe this is only the beginning of a new level of appreciation for the work of Indigenous Australian artists – particularly from international collectors.

The game has changed. 

And so, what better time to stay ahead of the curve and get a birds-eye view of the most collectable artists in the current market setting?

EMILY KAM KNGWARREYE, Kame Yam Awelye, 1996 - DESERT PAINTERS OF AUSTRALIA, Gagosian, 3 May - 3 July 2019

EMILY KAM KNGWARREYE, Kame Yam Awelye, 1996 - DESERT PAINTERS OF AUSTRALIA, Gagosian, 3 May - 3 July 2019

(NB. I’ve added a new feature to my Top 10 - to drive home the critical importance that ethical provenance has in any artwork that you consider buying. I’ve included the provenance guidelines that I strongly adhere to for each artist in this list - to continue building a strong and sustainable marketplace moving forward).

1. Emily Kame Kngwarreye

On the back of the fantastic exposure of her work at the current exhibition at Gagosian (as well as Kame Yam Awelye used as the hero image for the exhibition’s promotion), Emily has rocketed back up to the number one spot with a roar.

Emily has long been a crowd favourite and a driving force in the marketplace both in Australia and internationally.  But, incredibly, Emily’s prices still remain very reasonable - take for example the important work from the Vroom collection which is appearing at Sotheby’s auction in November, estimated at $300,000-500,000 - to think that a work of this scale and quality can be offered at such a price staggers me. (More on that in my next Art Market Insider Guide, released next month).

Acceptable lines of provenance for this artist are Delmore Gallery and Rodney Gooch (CAAMA) – Having Japan retrospective travelling exhibition history doesn’t hurt either.

2. Ronnie Tjampitjinpa

RONNIE TJAMPITJINPA, Muminya, 1997 SIGNIFICANT, D’Lan Davidson, 30 May - 15 June 2019

RONNIE TJAMPITJINPA, Muminya, 1997
SIGNIFICANT, D’Lan Davidson, 30 May - 15 June 2019

Ronnie has also garnered great exposure out of the recent retrospective at AGNSW as well as more recently at Gagosian in New York – where he was the ‘talk of the town’. The outstanding result last year at D+H for Wilkinkarra, 1993 which sold for $151,280 AUD, didn’t harm either.

Demand for his work has continued to strengthen ever since. There have been numerous private sales well in excess of $100,000 over the last year. And that interest and trend will continue for the finest works by this artist. What a difference a year can make.

Papunya Tula Artists (PTA) is the only acceptable provenance for Ronnie’s work.

3. Rover Thomas

ROVER THOMAS, Tjadarun - Rainbow, circa 1985 SIGNIFICANT, D’Lan Davidson, 30 May - 15 June 2019

ROVER THOMAS, Tjadarun - Rainbow, circa 1985
SIGNIFICANT, D’Lan Davidson, 30 May - 15 June 2019

Rover Thomas could very well take the number one position. Along with Emily, his work has been the major driving force in the Australian Indigenous secondary market since the beginning, but prices for his work still remain suppressed. It will be interesting to watch this space over the next 12 to 18 months especially after the Sotheby’s sale in New York. With vested interests in this space, I am sure that before too long Rover and Emily will be fighting for the top position once again.

Impeccable provenance for works by Rover Thomas is critical – Mary Macha and Waringarri Arts are the only two lines of provenance that I accept.

4. George Tjungurrayi

On the back of the 2018 Biennale of Sydney and the media surrounding the Gagosian exhibition, George Tjungurrayi has made one of the most extraordinary turn-arounds in any Indigenous artist’s career. The eye-watering and well curated display at the Biennale has generated immense interest here and internationally – and I can report there is once again a back-log in demand, particularly for major works.

Only works with Papunya Tula Artists provenance will suffice.

5. Bill Whiskey

BILL WHISKEY, Rockholes and Country near the Olgas, 2007  DESERT PAINTERS OF AUSTRALIA, Gagosian, 3 May - 3 July 2019

BILL WHISKEY, Rockholes and Country near the Olgas, 2007
DESERT PAINTERS OF AUSTRALIA, Gagosian, 3 May - 3 July 2019

Of all the works that garnered the most attention at the Gagosian exhibition, it was this painting by Bill Whiskey. Whiskey produced a limited body of work – approximately 200 works in circulation, and the quality never seems to miss the mark. 

Currently, supply simply does not meet demand and I see his works commanding a strong presence on the international stage in the short to medium term. There is such great potential here - he has a purely individual bold style and technique.

Only Watiyawanu Artists provenance is adequate here.

WARLIMPIRNGA TJAPALTJARRI, Marawa, 2007 DESERT PAINTERS OF AUSTRALIA, Gagosian, 3 May - 3 July 2019

WARLIMPIRNGA TJAPALTJARRI, Marawa, 2007
DESERT PAINTERS OF AUSTRALIA, Gagosian, 3 May - 3 July 2019

6. Warlimpirrnga

There still remains great potential for Warlimpirrnga’s work and I don’t think his market has come close to reaching its peak. His work has struck a chord with the international contemporary art world – led by outstanding results at both Sotheby’s in London and at his exhibition at Salon 94 in New York. 

There has clearly been a very strong surge in sentiment towards works with provenance from the founding community – Papunya Tula Artists. And Warlimpirrnga is at the forefront of that re-engaged movement.  PTA is the only acceptable provenance for this artist.

7. Gordon Bennett

GORDON BENNETT, 1955-2014, Haptic Painting Explorer - The Inland Sea, 1993 Sold by Bonhams in 2012

GORDON BENNETT, 1955-2014, Haptic Painting Explorer - The Inland Sea, 1993
Sold by Bonhams in 2012

I’ve always been a strong advocate for contemporary urban indigenous artists in Australia, but because paintings are very tightly held and relatively few artworks reach the secondary market, it is difficult to gauge their place in this list. The key strength is an incredibly strong narrative – there’s a real story to be told and the leading artists tell that in a very vocal way. Gordon Bennett is the most collectable and there still remains enormous potential here.

As with the majority of Urban Indigenous artists who are trained, the optimum source of provenance is the representative gallerist at that time. With Bennett’s work - Bellas, Schubert and Sutton Galleries immediately come to mind.

NAATA NUNGURRAYI, Marrapinti, 2004 SIGNIFICANT, D’Lan Davidson 30 May - 15 June 2019

NAATA NUNGURRAYI, Marrapinti, 2004
SIGNIFICANT, D’Lan Davidson 30 May - 15 June 2019

8. Naata Nungurrayi

Along with the majority of the major Papunya Tula artists of the 21st century, Naata climbs the list, and will likely continue climbing. Of all the women at Papunya, Naata is the leading artist and, depending on Yukultji’s trajectory, always will be. In the current climate of the new politically aligning world, expect to see a strong surge of the women artists in the group.

Only Papunya Tula Artists provenance is acceptable for her work.

9. Paddy Bedford

Paddy is an artist whose work has really held up very strongly, throughout all adversity in the marketplace. Of all the Australian Indigenous artists, he’s the only one with a complete catalogue raisonné. International scope with Paddy is going to be potentially strong particularly in the contemporary sphere. Taken out of the context of Indigenous and/or non-Indigenous art – this artist’s work has a long race to run. And it is only the beginning.

Jirrawun Arts provenance combined with inclusion in his catalogue raisonné is required for this artist.

10. Yukultji

Yukultji’s market is now well and truly established and her recent exhibition at Salon 94 Bowery in New York was a jumping off point for international interest in her work. She produces limited works through Papunya Tula Artists, where she is very well managed. And there’s great demand in this market. Yukultji is the leading force at Papunya these days, and as her work progresses and her international exposure increases, I will be very interested to see where this leads.

PTA is the only acceptable provenance for her work.

11. John Mawurndjul

A cheeky bonus entry as I couldn’t leave out Mawurndjul – and he could have easily been even further up my list. I personally love bark paintings. They’re such a natural, organic medium and so purely identifiable as being Australian. But these are the very facts that are holding back this market internationally. Not all collectors can grapple with this medium. Mawurndjul is the leading bark artist - period. And the recent survey exhibition at the MCA in Sydney has greatly increased demand here. Mawurndjul is highly regarded and represented in both national and international institutions.

Maningrida Arts & Culture is the primary source of provenance for this work.

JOHN MAWURNDJUL, I am the Old and the New, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2018

JOHN MAWURNDJUL, I am the Old and the New, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2018

Want to know more about any of these artists? Feel free to get in touch.

And if you're interested in learning more about the importance of provenance in collecting Indigneous Australian art, you might find my ‘Best Practice’ guidelines helpful.