You’ll never regret living with beautiful art and supporting Australia’s First Nation's peoples through art is amazing but unfortunately not everyone sells Aboriginal Art for the right reasons.
The hard truth is that unethical businesses willing to exploit Aboriginal Artists are equally happy to sell you on whatever you need to hear to make their sales. Promoting their paintings as ethically sourced when they are not is one of many tactics used to deceive you.
So what should you do when buying Aboriginal Art from a gallery or dealer? The answer is to ask questions. A minute or two of your time can make all the difference and at the end of the day, no one wants to tell their friends about their beautiful painting which exploited the artist and they overpaid for.
Unethical dealers will meet your questions with readily provided and often, long winded explanations of their business model without actually providing any transparency and often claiming artists privacy as the reason.
So how can you definitively prove the ethical authenticity of a work (and it's held value)? Well, like most art markets, provenance is key.
Provenance is likely something you’ve heard thrown around on Antiques Roadshow but what does it actually mean? And how does it apply when buying Aboriginal Art?
Provenance of an Aboriginal painting is relatively simple really. The artworks provenance defines (with paperwork as proof) who painted the artwork and equally important, who for.
The gold standard in the Aboriginal Art market(with minor exceptions) is that artworks are produced and sold in conjunction with the artists' community run Aboriginal Art centre.
What is a certificate of authenticity when buying Aboriginal Art?
Certificates of Authenticity for Aboriginal paintings are a dime a dozen in the Aboriginal Art market and ones supporting unethical paintings are not worth the paper they are printed on. If you're presented videos and photos (especially with the artist holding the work up) it's likely a dud. Authenticity needs to prove fair payment to the artist in a market know for unethical practices.
Below are a number of Aboriginal Art centre's certificates of authenticity(COA) that we provide with our artworks. As you can see there is no strict format to them but the main thing to look for is the name of the organisation along with a catalogue number that matches the one noted on the artwork. You can search all Aboriginal organisations (including all ethical Aboriginal Art centres) at oric.gov.au - you can also discern this information from a google search but it is less clear in some cases. Certificates certified by the gallery or dealer is a clear red flag regarding ethics.
For an Independent perspective.
We caught up with Timothy Klingender the foremost authority on Aboriginal Art in secondary market.
Thanks for your time, Tim. Could you please mention how ethical trading defined your work at Sothebys Auction House in those early years?
The policy I started at Sotheby’s, is that where an artist is represented by an art centre (e.g. Pupunya Tula Artists), is to only include paintings by that artist that have art centre provenance, and to not accept works that are independently commissioned outside the centre.
That makes sense, Tim, and how is this policy seen elsewhere?
The policy is in line with state and national galleries, and has been adopted by Deutscher and Hackett, Bonhams, Sotheby's internationally, though is not in place with other auctioneers such as Leonard Joel, Cooee Art Market Place or Shapiro.
And how does this effect someone wanting to buy an artwork for the first time?
Unfortunately, the private operators and gallerists when sprucing their wares fail to mention that there is a limited secondary market(re-sale) for the paintings they are selling.
Are there any exceptions to art centre provenance in the secondary market?
These policies are not written in stone. For example, in the case of Rover Thomas, the independent dealer Mary Macha is the preferred provenance, as the art centres of Waringarri & Warmun were not started until after he began painting for Mary Macha, and she remained his principal agent and a person of thorough integrity. Sometimes too, when an artist leaves an art centre for good, such when Clifford Possum left Papunya Tula Artists, we continued to occasionally sell his post PTA work.
And can you explain why we should care?
The policy is in place to stop the exploitation or artists, ensure artworks are recorded professionally, to support art centres who manage the artist's careers and nurture their practice, and are so important to the health and well-being of remote communities.
Thank you Tim for sharing your truth and your time☺
Tim is in the top tier of the Aboriginal Art market and in contrast here is my own first hand experience of unethical trading in a remote community.
This is Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and myself a couple of years back. Ronnie is exploited. He is a respected elder, he is tenacious, easy going and enjoys getting a laugh, he is also one of the early artists from the Western Desert Art Movement and sadly, one of the most exploited.
Ronnie often visits Nyirripi, where this photo was taken. He lives in Kintore and travels for cultural reasons often. His wife is Mary Napangardi Brown and she paints with the art centre, Warlukurlangu Artists and for many years I worked in Nyirripi community.
I wanted to share a small anecdote from art centre life and I share this particular experience as Ronnie is both an esteemed artist and heavily exploited.
They came on a Sunday in a dodgy blue corolla hatchback when the art centre is closed.
It's not the first occasion but my esteem for the artist piqued my interest. I watched as the corolla drove around the small community, stopping here and there until they found their known target. - Ronnie, after a time, entered the vehicle which then continued driving around the community unencumbered as they struck terms. He was then dropped off.
Later that day, Ronnie left in the car and returned in the late evening.
Now, you can watch Ronnie painting on the side of the road on youtube in brazen exploitation. The paintings are offered for 30-80k. If you buy them you are throwing away your money.
Ronnie is a great artist from the Western Desert Movement and the correct provenance for any work by him is from the Pupunya Tula Artists.
As a final note here, I want to stress that we sell paintings on consignment and prices are set by the art centre.
Please be aware some galleries buy art centre artworks at their wholesale price(which is great!)but increase them as they wish. The artist and art centre are happy though you may pay premium.