Aboriginal Art at Auction

The 2007 season for Aboriginal art at auction is upon us. 

Ten years ago, in June of 1997, Sotheby’s Melbourne sale raised the stakes and started discussions (if not arguments) that are still going. The fifteenth lot on offer that day was a 1972 work by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa out of the collection of Australian artist Tim Guthrie. Guthrie lived in Alice Springs for twelve months during 1971-72 at the time when Geoffrey Bardon was bringing in the first paintings from Papunya for sale at the Stuart Art Centre, and during that time he purchased twenty of these early masterpieces. All of them went under the hammer at Sotheby’s ten years ago, with the Warangkula selling for A$206,000, more than two and a half times the upper estimate. Water Dreaming was the largest and most beautiful and intricately painted of the twenty works, but it’s often overlooked that two other paintings from Guthrie’s collection also broke the $100,000 mark that night. Both were by Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi and both from 1972 as well: Water Dreaming ($103,700), which shares the delicacy and shimmer of Warangkula’s painting, and an Untitled work ($123,000), a simple and iconic work that featured on the catalog’s cover that year, and has been re-interpreted in the last decade by Shorty’s daughter Wentja (#2) Napaltjarri.

Almost as if to celebrate the decennial of that extravaganza, Lawson-Menzies and Sotheby’s are looking to break records once again, and monumentality is the order of the day. (Both catalogs can be viewed online now.) At Lawson-Menzies in Woolahra on May 23, the big (literally) excitement will center on Emily Kngwarreye’s Earth’s Creation (1995, 275 x 632 cm, estimated at $500,000-$700,000). A truly formidable work, it justifies to my mind the comparisons to Monet in the depth and richness of its color and in its vast scope recalling the profusion of the Giverny gardens.

Sotheby’s is raising the stakes considerably more. On offer is one of the five major paintings created by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri between 1976 and 1979, the grand geographies that took Papunya painting to new levels of majesty. Two of these masterworks are in the Kelton Foundation Collection; the Art Gallery of New South Wales holds a third. Warlugulong, (1977, 202 x 337.5 cm, estimated at $1.8 – 2.5 million) has been in the private collection of Melbourne dealer Hank Ebes for over a decade since being auctioned off by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in Melbourne. The olive brown landscape of this painting is dominated by the central image of the fire (warlu) and the pall of smoke that blows across the landscape and the skeletal remains of Lungkata’s duplicitous sons. It speaks, it mythologizes, even to someone unfamiliar with the details of the story. Should this painting reach even the low estimate, the price will more than double the current record for the work of an Aborginal artist at auction, $788,750 for All That Big Rain Coming Down From Top Side by Rover Thomas, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2001. I get the sense that Sotheby’s is inviting comparisons to the 1997 sale of the Johnny Warangkula: the catalog offers an extensive essay (it’s much more than an annotation) by Dick Kimber on the painting’s genesis. Kimber similarly documented the 1972 Water Dreaming ten years ago, although not at quite the length he goes to here.

Apart from these two colossal offerings, Lawson Menzies has another eleven paintings estimated to go as high as $100,000; Sotheby’s another fourteen. 

At Lawson-Menzies, all but three of those works are by the triumvirate of high expectations: Rover, Emily, and Clifford. There’s a large Tommy Watson, and a beautiful work by Lin Onus (Fish and Storm Clouds (Guyi na Ngawalngawal), 1994, 183 x 183, estimated at $120,000-150,000) that owes a debt to Monet’s waterlilies as well in its misty, reflective mood. The odd lot–for such a high price–is a beautiful and again monumental Water Dreaming from 1980; I say “odd lot” because the artist is unknown. It’s attributed to Johnny Warangkula, but bears stylistic similarities to works by Old Mick Tjakamarra and Old Walter Tjampitjinpa. It measures 122 x 306, and whoever painted it certainly produced a masterpiece. 

The auction at Sotheby’s is scheduled for July 24, and the high rollers there show a great deal more diversity, although there are five works by Rover Thomas among the fifteen with high estimates of $100,000 or more. The other works include paintings on plywood by Charlie Numbulmoore and a bark by Alec Mingelmanganu, works which usually do quite well at Sotheby’s. Gordon Bennett’s vast history painting, a diptych called Possession Island (1991, 162 x 260 cm, estimated at perhaps half a million dollars) is an unusual coup for Sotheby’s to offer. Papunya Tula paintings dominate the rest of the high-end pieces, with a stunning early work by Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa and a 1990Tingari painting by Anatjari Tjakamarra among the standouts. Also on offer is a recent work by Naata Nungurrayi which was the star of the Telstra Awards in 2005: the painting that everyone wanted to buy on opening night.

There are many other superb examples on offer at both auctions, but the buzz will certainly be about these potentially very large sales. It will be most interesting to see how this latest round of competition and interplay among the auction houses sorts itself out.

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