RArtefacts, barks and photographs on offer in Sotheby's Aboriginal art sale

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 4th October 2012

Artefacts, barks and photographs on offer in Sotheby's Aboriginal art sale

Sotheby’s Aboriginal Art department has put together a solid boutique auction worth $1.33-1.90 million for its October 15th sale at Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel. The sale is strong on bark paintings most especially from Groote Eylandt and Yirrkala, early works by several Balgo Hills masters, photographs, and artefacts.

The standout painting is illustrated on the catalogue cover. Rain Dreaming with Ceremonial Man (c.1971) by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula (Lot 53) was one of four by Warangkula that belonged to Geoffrey Bardon until first offered for sale in 2001. In that sale, the highest price achieved for any of the four works was for Water Dreaming with Rain and Lightning 1972, which reached $150,750 (still the 5th highest result on record for the artist). The work in this October sale was, in my own opinion, the finest of the four works on offer at that time.   It is illustrated on page 164 of Geoffrey and James Bardon’s book Papunya: A Place Made After the  Story) and has never been outside of Australia. For this reason, and its quality, it is unlikely to receive an expert permit. Though this may limit potential buyers (given the $140,000-$180,000 presale estimate) I rate this amongst the finest of all early Papunya boards, and even in the currently difficult economic climate, worth in excess of $250,000.

The most interesting lot however, was not created by an Aboriginal artist at all, and is not even about an Australian subject. It comprises two albums of photographs taken in New Guinea, in 1885, by the Melbourne ethnographer and photographer John William Lindt (Lot 32). These are not studio images like those of Aborigines taken in 1864 by C.E. Bevan (on offer as Lot 34). The Bevan images are wonderful and worthy examples, but not as valuable as those taken by Lindt. The great polymath and art patron Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer was so taken with these beautiful albumen prints of Papuan village life that he personally arranged to have them exhibited at the National Museum of Victoria in 1906. They should attract intense collector interest.

Though there are few really standout works, Sotheby’s is playing to its strength in this sale. Amongst the most worthy, in my own opinion, are Lot 19, an early (1990) 120 x 91 cm work by Emily Kngwarreye with Delmore Downs provenance. This should exceed its high estimate of $35,000. Two outstanding bark paintings immediately caught my eye. Lot 21 by the great Rirratjingu elder Mathaman Marika and Lot 65 by Munggurrawuy Yunupingu leader of the Gumatj clan. Munggurrawuy and Mathaman were amongst the first painters commissioned by the Methodist missionary Reverend Wilbur S. Chaseling in 1935. Both were born before intensive European colonisation, and became the principle informants to Charles Mountford and Roland and Catherine Berndt in the production of much of the early literature on the song poetry of Arnhem Land. They, and several of their contemporaries, developed the episodic style (in which the painted surface is divided into narrative panels) that was to become typical of the North East Arnhem Land region. Both of these barks exhibit the brilliant clan designs and detailed narrative elements for which their best works are renowned.

The other outstanding work by a bark artist is a work on plywood by the little known Tiwi artist Ali Miller Mungutopi. The five Mungutopi brothers were historically important intermediaries with the white world, and were patronized by Sandra Le Brun Holmes, in particular, during her visits to the Tiwi islands during the 1960s.  The work carries very scanty provenance, yet seems to be in splendid condition given its age. On first impression, the $30,000-40,000 presale estimate seems high, however Ali Miller’s brother, Deaf Tommy, has no less than three results at auction that exceed these figures, including his record, the $96,000 recorded by Coral  c.1967 in Sotheby’s July 2007 sale. At the time it carried the same estimate as the work in this offering. Though only 16 works by Deaf Tommy have appeared at auction not one by his brother Ali Miller has ever appeared before. This would indicate it is a very rare lot indeed and worthy of the finest collection.

Of the remaining works, I am drawn personally to a rare depiction of Alice Springs by Hermannsburg artist Walter Ebaterinja (Lot 45) and the large striking work by Jimmy Baker (Lot 69), which measures 183 x 233 cm and seems good buying at its low estimate of $20,000.

There are a number of early works from Balgo Hills, of which Lot 1 and 95 by Donkey Man Lee are important and well priced. Amongst the early Papunya boards three are by Anatjarri Tjakamarra and of these Lot 52, Tinikutinupa, Kangaroo Rat Dreaming 1973 is the most highly desirable.

Best value in this sale are Lot’s 54, a lovely small bark by Yirawala; Lot 19, the work by Emily Kngwarreye mentioned above; and two lovely bark paintings by Peter Maralwanga and John Murwurndjul, lots 89 and 90.

Overall, this is a nice, small and well-focused auction, with works of quality and a few standout pieces. It is a sale for the times. A solid offering from Sotheby’s specialist D’Lan Davidson, who seems intent upon building an increasingly creditable presence in the market.

Adrian Newstead

October 2012