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In the light of the current exhibition being staged at the Royal Academy, Elliot Lee suggested a re post of this discussion, to which I have added a little bit of the latest news.

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Much has been written about the Australian Aboriginal art market as about Australian Aboriginal art itself, which when you think about it, is really quite strange.

Why is it that the marketing of these artworks garners as much interest as the artworks themselves, and in some respects, more ?
These are my views regarding the marketing of Aboriginal art:

Now, I must firstly state my position. I deal in Australian Aboriginal work. Not exclusively, but it is an area that I find to be of amazing interest to me.This wasn’t always the case. In fact, in the past I found that Aboriginal art did absolutely nothing for me and I was as dismissive of it and its place in the art world as its worst critic. I have more recently been pondering as to why I took such a dismissive view of it and what, more recently, had changed my mind to lead to such a dramatic appreciation of it as a contemporary art movement as to now be a very strong supporter of it.
Looking back on my 30 odd years in the art business, Aboriginal art was always available and accessible, but in the early years, mostly through galleries that were more like warehouses. This, on the whole* in Australia, sadly hasn’t changed to the extent one would have expected, considering the academic as well as worldwide interest in the works and the prices they command. (*that said, there are some fine galleries who respect, research and handle the artworks as one would expect).

In Australia now, there are still many “galleries” selling Aboriginal art as if the paintings were towels or items of hardware. You walk into these galleries that, nine times out of ten, are poorly lit, have no feeling for the aesthetic or the spirituality of what they are showing and selling. The artworks are often piled one on top of the other and are handled as one sees carpet traders handling their wares in the Middle East.

There is no respect shown for the pieces or for what they represent. This is one aspect of the reason why I never previously took the artwork seriously: if the majority of the galleries handling it didn’t respect it, then why should or would I ?

This then leads to the next type of selling that I feel also devalues the art: the week long or weekend sales in Church halls, town halls or similar. Huge and colourful advertising usually precedes these sales with the headlines Bargain Aboriginal Art or similar. The work is being sold as a commodity and for sale at “huge discounts to retail gallery prices“. This never inspires confidence, certainly not from my perspective, and yet you will always see a stream of buyers descend on these venues and walk away with their discounted treasure.

Sadly, what these people have purchased is neither discounted nor a treasure. They have bought at retail prices for lesser work of a mid range artist or worse, the work of a person who is really only painting as there is no other source of income. This then devalues the art as a whole.

Back in the mid 90′s there also was controversy as to whether Aboriginal artwork purchased directly from the artists was a legitimate purchase or whether such purchases should be only made through the artist’s community or co-operative. This led to long discussions with even the large auction rooms becoming involved to such an extent that they became quite discriminatory in what they would accept and from whom they would accept work to be consigned for auction.


The fact was that there were as many very ethical dealers as there were unethical and thus all were painted with the same brush and the market was further tarnished.The reaction to this public discussion led to a great outpouring of opinions, some well constructed whilst others were ill-informed at best. But the fact was that it further damaged what was a relatively fragile market and this damage took some years to repair.

Over a period of some years, the Aboriginal art market started to rebuild itself. Stagnating sales and a distrust of the market in general had led to a substantial decline in prices to such an extent that there were bargains to be had that even the most aprehensive buyer could see and appreciate.

It was during this period that my eyes were suddenly opened to some of the best Aboriginal art. I visited Public Galleries, commercial galleries and spoke with many collectors…and it was a revelation. These works were complex, beautifully constructed and with either very subtle colours or other canvases as bright as a summers day with vivid colour. More importantly, they had meaning. A hidden spirituality. A link to another time.

Also, at this time, buying for investment by Self Managed Superannuation Funds ( a retirement savings program set up by a previous government for those who wanted to self-manage their retirement savings) started to have a positive impact on the sales of Aboriginal art and slowly but surely, it started to rebuild on a firm footing with strong sales locally as well as internationally.

The auction houses seeing that their previous involvement had at best a negative impact on the market and seeing too that they could increase their own income by again openly selling Aboriginal artwork without qualifying where they had originally been purchased, embraced the stronger market for Aboriginal art by initially including some artworks in general Fine Art sales and then by mounting “Specialist” sales devoted exclusively to quality artwork by major deceased as well as up and coming artists. The prices moved higher and higher and world records were achieved.

In 2007, Emily Kame Kngwarreye set a new record with one of her paintings selling at auction for $1,056,000 AUD then in July of 2007 another record was set with the sale of a Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri for in excess of $2 million AUD.The market was booming again and investors as well as collectors started to look at Aboriginal art again and in a much more serious way than they had done so previously.

All was going well. The artists communities were receiving strong orders for works as well as individual artists who were being approached too by private dealers. Everyone was getting involved in the market. SMSF’s were strong supporters of the market, but were buying more with their eye on the investment potential of a piece rather than considering the aesthetics or deeper meaning imbedded in the pieces.

But then, just as the market was recovering, the Arts Minister in Australia at the time, Peter Garrett (of some prior fame as the lead singer of Midnight Oil and even greater fame, or more correctly, infamy, as the responsible minister for a number of less than successful, some would say disastrous, policies) decided that the market needed to be regulated and that the artists themselves should benefit from an Artists Resale Royalty scheme. In theory, a good and admirable policy, however, in practice, anything but.

The market slowed somewhat to digest this surcharge on re-sales and overall decided that it wasn’t unfair and could be accommodated. The fact that the body running the scheme cost more to administer, $2.5 million pa, than the scheme itself has delivered to all artists, some $600,000, has proven to be another issue of economic mis-management by the then Labor government.

However, this wasn’t the blow that caused the real damage to the market. In 2010, a review done on the investments of SMSF had suggested that investments in “exotic” items such as art and collectables be stopped. The government at the time dismissed this and all seemed well. SMSF’s continued to invest in Aboriginal art as well as other collectables and their investments proved sound. However, the Australian Gillard government at the time decided to re-visit this review (the Cooper review) for whatever reason and had a change of heart.

The government then embraced a policy of restricting SMSF’s from investing in collectibles and personal-use assets. This included art, jewellery, antiques etc. Existing SMSF collectibles had to be sold by 2020. The Aboriginal art market in Australia suffered terribly because of this action. Auction houses complained that there are few buyers. Dealers too, particularly those with good quality stock, saw their markets dry up. Yet, the weekend traders and low end galleries still did reasonably well.

Some SMSF’s sold out of all of their “exotic” items. Large collections of Aboriginal work held in SMSF’s were sold at auction at what could only be described as disappointing prices.

Whilst all this was going on in Australia, there was still strong demand for quality pieces overseas where many of the best pieces were being sent. A loss to Australia.

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Now, as I look at the current state of play, there is certainly some consolidation in the marketplace and a lot more interest, particularly in France and the US. Also, there have been some pleasing results from Australian auctions resulting in much higher prices than were achieved even 6 months ago.

There are still issues however.

Certainly the new government in Australia is looking at SMSF’s and the “exotics” ,from what I am being told, are likely to be re-assessed as investments for SMSF’s. This would be a positive.

The issue of Artists’ Resale Royalties is not just an issue in Australia, but also here in the UK. As of today, there is yet to be any positive news in regard to this imposition, but even on a base economic consideration, it would appear that it should be discontinued.

However, there is another issue too, one I commented on last year in another newsletter:

Certainly, this is not front page news and not necessarily new, however, last year I saw a number of works purporting to be by one of the greats, Judy Watson Napangardi in the marketplace, both here in the UK and also in Australia. Judy is an Elder and an aged, fragile artist. Yet, there were works appearing in the marketplace that were of subtle, or a different palette and also done with a much steadier hand. After some investigation, a number of reputable galleries have re-attributed these works as “Collaborative”. Not necessarily fakes, but perhaps at best done with Judy contributing the smallest amount or just the idea, but painted by members of her family. It just shows that one has to be aware and not take everything on face value….but that is a constant in the world art and antiques.

So where to from here?

My feeling is that there is certainly more confidence building in all markets, and as such, Aboriginal art too is being lifted on the rising tide. That said, the fact is that the older Aboriginal artists are sadly dying out or becoming too frail to paint. This will inevitably lead to price rises for their work.

Aboriginal art is now an international art market, not necessarily linked to Australia, with many of the finest pieces appearing in France or the US. This can only be seen as a positive.