What a difference a day makes! On the same morning that the Deutscher and Hackett Aboriginal and Oceanic Art catalogue arrived on collectors’ doorsteps, Tim Goodman announced that he had purchased the Sotheby’s Australian franchise. Two unrelated events to be sure, however both are likely to impact on the direction of the Aboriginal art market during and beyond the current economic downturn.
At the peak of the market in 2007 Aboriginal art sales were responsible for $23.7 million of the $175 million art auction market in Australia. However following poor sales and the closure of Joel Fine Art, the market dived 50%, prompting both Sotheby’s and Menzies Art Brands to reduce the size of their Aboriginal offerings while attempting to lift their minimum lot value to $6000.
The less than impressive results that followed, saw Sotheby’s hold their least successful sales of Aboriginal and Oceanic art since the new millennium while Menzies Art Brands Aboriginal sales shrunk from $9.1 million in 2007 to less than $1million per quarter in 2009.
Aboriginal art has been a centre piece of Sotheby’s Australian success since the mid 1990’s, and the Goodman purchase will have been in part informed by their flagging fortunes. An number of industry insiders have been wondering more and more openly, how much longer Sotheby’s and MAB could continue to recycle high end works with indecent haste in order to maintain market share, without loosing credibility. This has been a particular problem for Sotheby’s given the dearth of high value quality material, and their acceptance of such a narrow band of provenance for Aboriginal artworks.
What any of this has got to do with the current Deutscher and Hackett offering? In my opinion, just about everything!
While the production, scholarship, and quality of the D + H catalogue is as good any that has been presented to the market during the last decade, only two works in the entire sale have a value in excess of $100,000 and only 11 fall between a lowly $20,000 and $100,000.
However the sale turns the general auctioneers rule of thumb that 80% of the value of a sale should be in 20% of the works completely on its head. Here just two works, or 0.7% of the offerings represent 23% of the total value on low estimates.
D + H specialist Crispin Gutteridge has defied conventional wisdom by selecting no less than 259 works under $20,000 of which a staggering 230 are worth less than $10,000. The result is a sale containing 277 individual lots with a total value of just $2.04 million on low estimates.
I cannot remember a sale presented so lavishly with so few works of major importance or distinction. Generous essays of the length generally reserved for works worth in excess of $100,000 are afforded to paintings carrying estimates as low as $20,000.
Estimates are however conservative and, as a result, I expect the sale to kick off with a bang with a 90% + clearance rate for the first 50 lots and up to 85% for the next. Whether this success rate can be sustained thereafter however, will be the acid test for this approach.
The highest priced work in the sale has a very fine pedigree, and is illustrated on the catalogue cover. Yillimbiddi Country, 1988 (Lot 26) by Rover Thomas was originally sourced through Warringari Arts in Kununurra and was shown at the Adelaide Biennale in 1990. It was loaned to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2000 and included in three different curated exhibitions between 2000 and 2003. When sold by Sotheby’s in July 2003 (Lot 127) the painting achieved a price of $376,750 including BP. Carrying an estimate of $350,000 to $450,000 this time around it would appear to be good buying.
The impression of success or failure for the sale depends on the need to get this work away. The failure of this single lot would reduce the success rate by value by 17% and make an otherwise successful result appear mediocre.
In a most unusual move, the second most valuable work in an entire sale, Paddy Bedford’s Mendoowoorrji Medicine Pocket 2001 (Lot 10) is placed very early in the catalogue. The provenance is excellent, as this large work is included in the artist’s catalogue raisonné published by Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, this will be the third time it has changed hands since originally purchased. While it could not be described as one of the artist’s finest major works, it is nevertheless good example. Major paintings by Bedford are very hard to come by. He painted relatively prolifically for no more than 6 years and his paintings are much loved and tightly held.
Only two early Papunya boards appear, and once more they are early in the sale and estimated keenly. Both were illustrated in Geoffrey and James Bardon’s landmark publication, Papunya, A Place Made After the Story.
Johnny Warangkula’s Water Dreaming at Kalipinya 1972 (Lot 7) is estimated at $35,000 to $45,000, and sold for $38,050 including BP when last offered in July 2001 at Sotheby’s (Lot 74). While a work on this theme created during the same year holds record price for the artist at $486,500, and another has sold for $206,000 these records were set prior to 2001, and the majority of his best prices were achieved during the 1990’s. The $35,000 to $45,000 estimate is conservative and this work should sell well.
Mick Namarari’s Untitled (Dingo Ceremony), 1971/1972 (Lot 8) is an iconic work that has appeared at auction previously on two occasions during the last decade. It achieved a price of $35,750 against a presale estimate of $25,000 to $35,000 (Lot 133) in Sotheby’s July 2001 sale but is recorded as having failed to sell two years later when offered once more at the same estimate. Once again it carries a low estimate of just $25,000 and at this price would seem to be exceptional buying.
Lot 9 however, a very fine work on cardboard, A Pair of Wanjina, by Charlie Numbulmore, (Lot 9) has been in the current vendor’s family since first purchased in 1970 and is entirely fresh to the market. Only 25 works by this artist have ever appeared at auction, and all but one has sold resulting in a 96% success rate. His very impressive figures at sale make him statistically the sixth most successful artist in the secondary art market in the history of the Aboriginal art movement. The catalogue entry includes a very good essay on the Numbulmoore by Kim Ackerman, and estimated at $40,000 to $60,000 this work should be very keenly contested.
Despite the large number of works estimated below $20,000 there are many nice pieces worthy of mention. They include the three works by Freddy Timms, all of which were originally purchased from Frank Watters. These include two of his earliest colour field paintings, and another from his 1999 solo exhibition that focused on the story of the early 20th century Aboriginal rebel, ‘Major’.
Other works that deserve attention are the lovely Jungura and Jambin, 2002 by Rusty Peters (Lot 83) and the large collaborative painting by the artists of Ampilawatja (Lot 99).
Crispin Gutteridge will have been delighted to have secured, the iconic image Sexy and Dangerous (Lot 17) by urban artist Brook Andrew. Andrew has been feted as one of the most successful Aboriginal urban photographic and graphic artists of recent times but, in common with Tracy Moffatt, he has proved, at least in the secondary market, to have been a bit of a one trick wonder. While 18 of the 27 works that have been offered at auction have sold, variations of this particular image hold all of his 4 highest records.
Bonham’s and Goodman set a record price of $84,000 for a copy of Sexy and Dangerous in August 2007 (Lot 111). However the next three highest prices all fall between $33,400 and $36,000.
Another artist in the same boat as Brook Andrew in this regard is internationally renowned Tracy Moffatt. With a widely diverse oeuvre Moffatt’s peevish reaction to the fact that works from her iconic Something More series, made as early as 1989, hold 9 of her top 10 results at auction, has been to refuse permission for their reproduction. Hence, Lot 19, estimated at a very reasonable $30,000 to $40,000 is not illustrated in this, or any other, catalogue.
Collectors would be wise not to overlook the works on paper by Kitty Kantilla, whose solo retrospective was held at the Ian Potter Centre during 2007. While Untitled, 2001 (Lot 14), a work on canvas exhibited in the retrospective carries an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000, it is hardly bigger or any more accomplished than the work on paper Jilamara, 1999 (Lot 63) estimated at just $5000 to $7000. Jilamara, 1997, (Lot 67) another fine work on canvas would appear inexpensive at just $14,000 to $18,000.
Amongst the many other works, those bark paintings most worthy of attention are by the North East masters, Mawalan Marika (Lot 33), and Mungurrawuy Yunupingu (Lot 32) and Western Arnhem Land’s Lofty Nadjamerrek (Lot 5).
The sale abounds with paintings from Balgo Hills though the majority it appears, are owned by a single vendor. All were collected in the mid 1990’s and created during James Cowan’s tenure at the art centre. Cowan delighted in using the art coordinator’s residence as a de facto art gallery and after wining and dining visitors he would sell the works directly off the walls of his home.
Unfortunately, while some of the works do stand out, the majority are not representative of the artist’s finest, nor do they represent the most important early period in which they painted. All however appear keenly priced and represent good buying at their estimated values.
This D + H offering makes a most fascinating sale. While commercial galleries appear to have lost customers to the tourist galleries for works under $15,000, and are surviving on fewer sales of high end pieces, this D + H sale may well turn the auction market on its head.
It is more than a decade since so many works with age and values under $10,000 were on offer and promoted through a catalogue of such quality. Its results should be studied closely by industry observers especially Sotheby’s Australia’s new owner Tim Goodman, as they will prove to be the single most valuable barometer of the market yet, as we head in to 2010. With other recent Aboriginal sales failing to excite the market D + H may well be leading us ‘back to the future’.