RTwo Duelling Shields go Head to Head as Theodore Bruce Dips its Toes into Tribal Waters

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 4th June 2012

Two rare pre-contact Queensland rainforest fig shields are about to clash at auction during the same week. Sotheby’s (June 5th Important Aboriginal Art sale) offers a classic banana-shaped example with symmetrical vertical and horizontal clan design, and prominent boss. Its patina is alluring though subdued as if, as they say in Europe, it has been ‘waxed by the maid’. This imparts a lustre that is absent in the pristine example that comes up during the following week at Theodore Bruce, in Beaconsfield, Sydney (June 12th Aboriginal and Oceanic Art sale).  

The Bruce shield (Lot 21) is more crudely decorated, though the item is no less pleasing. Its’ surface reveals no more than natural aging over more than a century. Only international interest will prove whether this matters, or the allure of Sotheby’s imprimatur will win the day. 

The Theodore Bruce sale will be its first foray into Aboriginal and Oceanic Art in Sydney. Specialist, Jim Elmslie, has dealt in tribal art since 1985, firstly from his successful Ethnographics Gallery in Oxford Street, Paddington until 2001 and subsequently Queen Street, Woollahra until 2007.

More recently Elmslie has been an independent consultant from his base in the Barossa Valley, South Australia. From 2005 to 2007 he worked for the Aboriginal Art Department of Lawson-Menzies (specialising in tribal art and artefacts), and brings all his knowledge and contacts to this exciting first sale for Theodore Bruce.

This is a real dealer sale, the likes of which have not been seen in Sydney since the early 1990s. It includes the collections of two former prominent Aboriginal art dealers, both of whom retired from the industry more than a decade ago.  

Rosemary Penrose ran a string of well known Aboriginal Art galleries in Alice Springs, Cairns and Hahndorf, while Cameron Shave was co-director of the long established Katherine Art Gallery in the Northern Territory throughout the 1990s.

Both Penrose and Shave had long careers working directly with important Aboriginal artists, and provide sound provenance for the works offered. The sale is worth $350K to $450K and includes 218 lots. Roughly half are paintings and barks, and half artefacts.

In order to differentiate his sales from those that place wet paintings straight into auction, Elmslie had accepted nothing that is less than 5 years old, with verifiable and widely respected provenance. As a consequence, this is a far more eclectic offering than would be expected for a first off sale

Elmslie says that he has set the estimates for the Aboriginal paintings at what he calls  ‘the new recalibrated reality of the post-GFC world, in which prices have dropped from their lofty boom time heights’

Nevertheless, he insists, fine work from well documented and well represented artists continue to maintain their inherent value, ‘given the profound place they fill in the Australian art narrative over the last 40 years’.

Elmslie has also managed to hunt down some very fine oceanic artefacts for this sale. A stunning and rare Austral Islands paddle should fly, as should a powerful orator's chair from the Sepik River.

Another standout oceanic piece is a beautifully patinated Solomon Islands canoe prow. With excellent aged bark paintings by names such as Phillip Gudaykudthay, paintings by the likes of Lorna Napurrula Fencer (whose solo retrospective recently opened in Melbourne), and a strong selection of Aboriginal tools and weapons, this sale is very much worth a visit.