RD & H Aboriginal Sale Brimful of Confidence

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 9th May 2011

OMG. I feel like Rip Van Winkle! Did I fall asleep in November 2007 and miss the GFC? Did I just dream the Aboriginal art market is off the boil?  Going through the first 30 works of the Deutscher and Hackett catalogue to be offered for sale on the 18th of May feels more like the market on steroids!

D and H entered the Aboriginal art market in October 2009 with a lavish catalogue containing 277 lots worth $2.04 million* but few works of distinction. It had been more than a decade since this many works of art with age and values under $10,000 had been on offer by a Tier I auction house. Only two pieces in the entire sale had a value in excess of $100,000 and only eleven exceeded $20,000. They stuck with this philosophy in March 2010 offering 279 lots worth $2.159 million*.

However 6 months later they lifted the bar significantly. Clearly signaling their intention to seize the opportunity engendered by Sotheby’s vulnerability as market leader, fifteen works carried low estimates in excess of $50,000 with six lots comprising 40% of the $2.7-$3.6 million sale.

Now they lift the bar once more, determined to take stake their place on the high ground, before sales by both a stabilized Sotheby’s, and a bullish Bonham’s firmly set on market domination. The sale includes no less than 15 works valued above $50,000 of which 8 carry low estimates in excess of $100,000.

It is certain to get off to a flying start when the delightful 168 x 11.5 work by Daniel Walbidi (Lot 1) conservatively estimated at $12,000 to $18,000 sells well above its high estimate and the extremely rare engraved tile attributed to Alec Minglemanganu (Lot 2), formerly in the collection of Sir Alistair McAlpine, flies over its high estimate.

However the acid test for both this sale, and the market in general, will come as soon as Lot 8, with the fortune of Anatjarri No. III Tjakamarra’s Women’s Story 1992 estimated at $150,000 to $200,000. Anatjarri has been the star amongst the early Papunya artists during the past 12 months. He was, in fact 2010’s most successful artist with 5 works sold of 5 offered at an average price of $110,380 including the year’s highest selling work Story of a Women’s Camp and the Origin of Damper 1973 for $384,000.

The Anatjarri in this particular sale may not be quite as good, but it is still  a truly wonderful painting, worthy of a great institution, as is the following 1971 board by Mick Namarari.

These will be followed in quick succession by two canvases that featured in Emily Kngwarreye’s retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery and later showed in the National Museum of Australia’s blockbuster in Osaka, Tokyo and Canberra. The first (Lot 12), formerly in the Hugh Jamieson collection is the strongest and largest, yet carries a presale estimate of $120,000 to $150,000 compared to the hefty $180,000 to $240,000 estimate of the smaller Lot 13. These however are two of four major works by Emily equal to, or larger than 122 x 113 cm in size. The best, in my opinion are Lots 26 and 27 which are slightly more conservatively estimated due to their less prestigious exhibition history.

The sale includes no less than 3 major works by the late, great, Paddy Bedford. The largest and most accomplished is being sold from the artist’s estate. Merrmerrji – Queensland Creek 2004 is fresh from hanging in Remembering Forward, Aboriginal Paintings since 1960, at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne. It’s presale estimate is a very ambitious $150,000 to $180, 000.

There are, in fact, a number of quality works in this sale that carry too ambitious estimates and this is likely to result in a tough night for auctioneer Anita Archer. Based on recent sales results and a sluggish market, Kitty Kantilla’s untitled 92 x 79 cm canvas will be lucky to achieve its $50,000 low estimate. Other works that will prove difficult to sell will be Mick Namarari’s 1972 board Dingo Puppies (Lot 11) and Marnpi 1994 (Lot 19) and Bedford’s Mendoowoorrji-Medicine Pocket 2000.

However other major works by Ginger Riley, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Prince of Wales, Maggie Watson and Billy Thomas seem well priced. This is a strong sale that has been well constructed in spite of its length. Deutscher and Hackett would have been better served by culling their offerings to a maximum of 160 lost thereby discarding at least 80 items that add only $200,000 to $300,000 in value to the sale.

With the lack of depth in the current market, and all the real interest over by lot 40, it is likely that the auctioneer’s hammer will sound pretty hollow after the first half hour.