RSotheby’s Kluge Coup steals Mossgreen’s Thunder

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 21st May 2012

Sotheby’s Important Aboriginal Art sale, to be held in Melbourne on June 5th is a well constructed museological looking offering, with works valued at between $1.46 - $2.051 million. It is a boutique sale of just 105 lots, dominated by early Papunya boards (12 lots), bark paintings (20 lots), artefacts (22 lots), and 16 Hermannsburg watercolours (of which no less than 5 are by Albert Namatjira).

Stealing the thunder of Mossgreen’s highly anticipated Kluge sale to be held later this year, eight of the early Papunya boards have been sourced from a beneficiary of the estate of the late U.S. millionaire John W Kluge.

No less than third of the sale was sourced from overseas, through the Sotheby’s international offices and collector base. As a result, international bidding on the early paintings is expected to be more brisk than usual, given that the usual export restrictions will not apply.

Among several really lovely nineteenth century artefacts, the Gulmari shield (Lot3) and two bi-cornual baskets (Lots 4 and 5) stand out. These have been very keenly estimated and should go for well above their high estimates. The fine old Queensland rainforest shield (Lot 42), sourced in Prague, should fly given its conservative $12,000 - $30,000, in spite of the extra 10% GST payable on sale.

There are contemporary works in this sale for sure. But they are relatively few and far between. The most impressive are by Ginger Riley, Tommy Watson and Prince of Wales. Though it has an impressive exhibition history, I am far less taken with the 170 x 317.5 cm work Garimiala and Bulukbun, 1988 (Lot14), by Ginger Riley Mundawalawala, than the stunning Tommy Watson work, Pukara 2009 (Lot 27). The former was commissioned by Sharon Monty, whose Dreamtime Gallery operated in Perth during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. This monumental piece by Riley was created at Ngukurr very early in the artist’s painting career, and several years before his first solo exhibition with Beverley Knight’s Alcaston Gallery.

It is well worth comparing the quality of this fabulous Tommy Watson work (Lot 27) created for John Ioannou’s Agathon Gallery, with the far less alluring Lot 69, created by the artist for the Art Centre at Irrunytju, five years earlier. Agathon’s painting is so much better - testifying to the fact that ‘perfect’ provenance doesn’t necessarily make great art.

The standout painting in this sale is Shorty Lungkata’s Big Cave Story, 1972. Illustrated on the catalogue cover, it is the most expensive work in the sale, carrying an estimate of $180,000-220,000. The painting has been owned by Canberra residents, Gavin and Elspeth Seagrim since they bought it in Alice Springs it from Pat Hogan’s Stuart Art Centre, in 1973. It has a similar schematic composition to the Women’s Dreaming purchased for $103,312, by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2002. At the time this was the 4th highest price paid for a work by Lungkata, whose record stood at $123,500. The artist’s current record was set in 2009, when Sotheby’s sold an Untitled board for $168,000. While the painting in this sale is superb, it is highly unlikely to sell to an overseas buyer, who could sweat for up to 12 months for an export permit due to the outdated restrictions of the Movable Cultural Heritage Act. Undoubtedly Sotheby’s specialist D’Lan Davidson will be hoping a major Australian institution like the NGA throws its hat in the ring for this magnificent painting.