by: Adrian Newstead published: 6th September 2010
After two Mossgreen Indigenous art offerings over the final weekend in August, it was clear that tribal artifacts and contemporary Indigenous paintings, like oil and water, just don’t mix.
Three focused collections saved an otherwise tough Mossgreen Tribal and Oceanic art sale in which 164 of the 321 lots on offer (51%) sold for a total value of just over $600,000 including buyers premium against a total value at low estimates of $1.32 million (or 45% by value). The lots comprised $243,500 worth of Aboriginal artifacts and barks, $190,000 in early desert boards, $177,500 in contemporary Aboriginal paintings, $8,300 in Hermannsburg watercolours and $480,800 in oceanic artifacts.
The sale was underpinned by Martyn Cook and Thomas Hamel’s collection of early Papunya boards, the Aboriginal artifact collection of Dr. Rodney Withers and the late David Baker’s superb oceanic art collection. A former president of the Oceanic Art Society and an avid field collector Baker’s collection of Collingwood Bay Lime Spatula’s and body adornments provided the highlight of the sale. His superb private collection included fine examples from Vanuatu, the Trobriand Islands and the Louisades.
Of the six early Papunya Boards only the largest work, a 1973 rendition entitled Goanna Story 1973 by Kaapa Mbitjana Jambitjimba (Tjampitjinpa) failed to attract a buyer on the night. However four smaller Kaapa boards and others by Anatjarri Tjakamarra No. III and Timmy Payungka all found buyers, albeit at their low estimates.
The mixed fortunes of lots in this sale proved extremely revealing. Every single piece amongst the 17 premium lots from the Wither’s Aboriginal artifact collection and all of Baker’s most highly prized pieces sold, with many achieving their high estimates or greater. By night’s end 70 of the 123 Aboriginal artifacts and 84 of the 167 oceanic pieces sold along with 6 of the 7 early Papunya boards. However only 3 of the 16 contemporary Aboriginal acrylic paintings and one of the seven watercolours were successful on the night.
The most spectacular bidding on the night was reserved for lot 204, a personal photograph album assembled by Ted Strehlow that was originally sold at the now infamous Strehlow auction in Adelaide in 1999. It contained an extraordinary collection of photos depicting Arunta male ceremonies and body decoration. The album was hotly contested before being knocked down for $35,850 to London dealer Rebecca Hossack bidding on behalf of a Melbourne client.
Another highlight was the interest generated by a superb classically harpoon shaped Lime Spatula Lot 83 that sold for $14,340 against a presale estimate of just $2,000-2,500. However other than this and other particularly fine pieces from the Baker collection, the oceanic component of the sale faired badly. So too did the contemporary Aboriginal paintings, which appeared completely out of context in this company. The audience was confined solely to tribal enthusiasts with no crossover into contemporary painting. Amongst them were the usual dealers and rusted on tribal collectors. As usual all were extremely wary of showing their hand given the small number of major tribal collectors internationally and the close crossover between the local dealer’s client lists.