RNot playing the Game: Time to Rethink the Rules of Engagement

by: Sophie Ullin   published: 11th October 2010

It didn’t bode well at D+H (Deutscher and Hackett) when half of the critical, stage-setting first 20 lots were passed in, the phones barely rang and the seated audience appeared intent on marking their catalogues rather than waving their paddles. On top of that D+H’s auction had to battle with the natural elements as an extremely wild and loud storm lashed the building, managing to achieve the impossible, drowning out auctioneer Anita Archer. While the skies held water, unfortunately the belief that quality art will always be saleable, did not.

The auction tally of 60% by volume and 37% by value including post-sales amounted to $1.18 million including buyer’s premium. D+H results were cruelled by its heavy reliance on 6 paintings representing 40 % of the sale value. Only 1 of the 6 lots sold; Emily Kngwarreye’s very attractive and conservatively priced Alalgura Country 1994 (lot 16) was secured with one bid at its low estimate of $150,000; the highest price of the night. The vacuum in interest that greeted these standout works was deflating and fuels concerns regarding the state of the Aboriginal art market. Of particular disappointment was the lack of interest from any major institution, let alone serious collector, towards the rare and culturally significant Guirr Guirr (Krill Krill) Dance boards and masks (lot 85).

Rover Thomas‘s works were also largely ignored, either because collector’s pockets are not so deep in 2010 or perhaps the individual lots simply did not appeal. He is an artist whose market seems to ride a roller-coaster. In contrast, Emily Kngwarreye continued to cement her reputation as one of the most (reliably) collectable indigenous artists. Five of her six works were estimated under $100,000 and these all sold with good to respectable results except for Awelye (lot 26) that sat in the vulnerable price range above $200,000.

Putting aside the 45% of lots unsold, the writer’s notations on the night recorded bidding patterns that saw 40% of lots sold at or below low estimate, 9% sold at mid estimate and only 6% at or above high estimate. In the last category was Daniel Walbidi whose very fine pair of paintings, Ilyara and Kirriwirri (lot 7) more than doubled their low estimate to achieve a hammer price of $12,500. Sculptures performed respectably, most finding new homes. Anniebell Marrngamarrnga’s Yawk Yawk fibre work (lot 97) surprised most of all selling for $4,000 hammer which is at least twice her primary market price.

A range of contributing factors set challenging conditions for D+H’s sale. This was the fifth Aboriginal sale for the year, (the third for D+H) and closely followed the resoundingly successful William and Lucy Mora sale. Seen in context it sits somewhere around the middle of the 5 auctions and reflects the same trends; aside from the Mora auction, the remaining 4 sold between 32-52% by value – underwhelming results. Perhaps there has been one auction too many.

Issues of contraction, fragmentation and oversupply are impacting significantly on the Aboriginal art market. The client base is noticeably smaller than a few years ago; in many cases older collectors who were early supporters are no longer actively buying but instead are considering divesting and it’s apparent that a new generation of collectors needs to be nurtured to reverse the trend. While the Australian economy may be flourishing, the effect of high house prices and the threat of higher interest rates is limiting the capacity of the younger generation to acquire art. The accumulative effect of Government initiatives (Resale Royalty, Cooper report on SMSF’s and the Moveable Cultural Heritage Act) have also applied brakes to the market. Additionally, the overseas buyer base, once a driving market force has been eroded by the GFC and the strength of the Australian dollar. The auctions serve to expose this weakness revealing how small and vulnerable the indigenous fine art market has become.

In the wake of the auction, D+H have been flooded with post-sale enquiries for works in the lower price brackets. At some level this is encouraging, but on the other hand it illustrates the buyer’s focus and desire for a bargain. Does this indicate a refusal by collectors to play ball…are they resetting the terms of play? If this pattern of behaviour and very low sale percentages for Aboriginal art continues then surely the auction houses must be questioning the viability of the current auction model. One would think that a slide in sales volume and value will turn their sights more keenly into the dealer territory of private treaty sales. The market is at, or very near, the crossroads and whatever sales method is considered for the future, it is apparent to auction houses, dealers and galleries alike that they need new collectors onboard. Cultivating this “rare breed” starts now!