RKluge’s Parting Gift to Aboriginal Art

by: Adrian Newstead   published: 12th June 2012

Two Aboriginal art auctions in two days have delivered renewed interest in the Aboriginal art market.  Echoing the heady days pre-GFC, the number of collectors and dealers attending the sales surprised auction house staff, which hurriedly added extra seating just prior to the sales.

Sotheby’s 105 lot boutique sale achieved 96% by value and just under 60% by volume, riding on the back of the sale of all 14 works formerly in the collection of American millionaire John W Kluge. The following night Mossgreen sold every single one of Kluge’s 66 desert paintings on offer. Its conservative $331,000 presale total was more than doubled as the works achieved a sales total of $787,485 including buyer’s premium. All were part of Kluge's residual estate, sold to benefit student scholarships at his alma mater, Columbia University.

Sotheby’s were justifiably delighted to achieve its sales total of $1.4 million. Specialist D’Lan Davidson sold the very fine Big Cave Story, 1972, (Lot 58) by Shorty Lungkarta for $216,000, and Ginger Riley’s Garimala and Bulukbu, 1988  (Lot 14) for $96,000. Tommy Watson’s Pukara, 2009 (Lot 27) achieved $114,000.

All were exceptional works and each sold at the high end of Sotheby’s expectations. The strong, carefully curated selection of artefacts also did well. Sotheby’s star lot, the early Queensland rainforest shield (Lot 42), that had been repatriated from Prague, sold for $50,100 against its presale estimate of $20,000-30,000.

Interestingly Ngoia Pollard’s Swamps West of Nyirripi, 2006 (Lot 72) set an auction record for the artist at $36,000. Yet this work, originally exhibited as a finalist in the Telstra Art Awards sold during the boom years to its original owner for a reported $60,000. (An indicator of the state of the current market which has dropped by 49% from its peak in 2007 (Australian Indigenous Art Market index www.aiam100.com).

The Kluge sale at Mossgreen brought 150 people out on a bleak night in Melbourne. The mood of expectation was reported to mirror that of ‘the old days’, with multiple bidders on each lot.  Uta Uta’s Big Corroborree with Water Dreaming Sacred Tjuringas, 1971/72, (Lot 15), sold to an overseas bidder for $72,600. Yet, even though the usual export restrictions did not apply, the majority of lots were sold to Australians. This was not all that surprising.  Mossgreen had estimated the value of each lot so keenly, that it achieved a 238% clearance by value.

I expected the sales total to be far higher. Given their provenance, and the cache they will carry when next offered for sale, the best of these pieces were purchased extremely cheaply.  Take for instance the following examples. Works every bit as good as lot 7, the early board, Yam Dreaming, 1972/73, by Uta Uta Tjangala have sold at auction previously for up to $45,000. This particular piece sold for just $23,760.  Charlie Tarawa’s early board, Nyinga Dreaming c 1972,  (Lot 16) sold for the same figure. Yet works created during the same year with far less prestigious provenance and allure by this artist have sold previously for up to $70,000. The major 208 x 335 cm work by Clifford Possum, Bush Tucker Dreaming in the Sandhills, 1980 (Lot 21), was reputedly sold to John Kluge for $500,000. Some lucky Australian buyer picked it up at Mossgreen for just $92,400.

We may be well past the heady days pre GFC, but we are still at least 6 years from the next market peak. If these sales prove anything, it is that now is definitely the time to pick up bargains. One need only match sound advice and a good eye, to enjoy owning great works of impeccable provenance. For the next year or two you can be certain that, when the time is ripe, there will be financial benefits.