Monday March 09th 2015

The Aboriginal Art market has witnessed the best auction result since the peak of 2007/08. Can this be considered a turning-point in the Aboriginal Art market? A decisive change in sentiment has occurred, so by definition the answer is yes. 10 years from now when prices for exceptional works have tripled, we will look back at this sale as a defining moment.

The Laverty Collection sale held by Deutscher + Hackett breathes much deserved confidence into the Aboriginal Art market following a rationalisation post-2008. Fittingly held at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the sale represented part of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty’s extensive collection acquired over 40 years. The auction outperformed expectations to achieve $3.4million, well above the $1.6-2.4m estimates. 99% of the lots were sold with an enormous 170% achieved by value.

Referenced in the media as ‘arguably one of Australia’s most important and well-known collections of Australian Aboriginal Art’, The Laverty Collection was exceptionally well branded, with multiple works exhibited in public galleries to build provenance, and therefore value. 

It was a fair catalogue of work, however it cannot be said that they were the best examples by each artist – in some cases, far from it. I personally know of 5 other collections with far superior works, however they are not yet as well ‘branded’ in the marketplace. 

The ‘single-owner sale’ is proving to add a premium to prices, as evidenced in the great results achieved for works in The Grundy Collection  and part 1 of The Laverty Collection in 2013, when the market was truly in the doldrums.

What has changed? The buzz in the room from over 250 people, and on the phones. You could feel the market returning. The bidding activity was more akin to a Saturday afternoon property auction in Sydney…but with much better value buying on offer!

The reality is some of the market forces driving property prices are also flowing onto the art market. Interest rates are low, investors are looking for returns elsewhere, and tangible assets such as art benefit. 

The fall in the Australian dollar is also important –  the international buyers are back. Collectors from USA, UK, Europe, and Asia were on the phones and bidding for prized lots. 

The sale was a ‘who’s who’ of Aboriginal Art, with big name artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Paddy Bedford, Tommy Watson and Naata Nungurrayi all achieving prices in excess of $100,000. The pinnacle was $216,000 for a 2001 painting by Naata Nungurrayi (born c.1932). A good example without being her best, the excellent provenance driving bidders both in the room and on the phones to equal her auction record previously set at the top of the market in 2007.

Of the top 10 prices paid, only 3 were for works by living artists. Second to Naata Nungurrayi’s high price, a traditional bark painting by John Mawurndjul (b. 1952) secured $120,000, an auction record for the artist. The other living artist in the top 10 results, with $105,000 for a medium-sized canvas of 128x185cm is Tommy Watson, widely acknowledged as Australia’s greatest living Aboriginal painter. For someone who has seen more of Tommy’s work than perhaps 2 or 3 others in the market, this was a poor example. Clearly the bidders were after an early example. 

Where will the market go from here? I expect the Aboriginal Art market to perform slightly better in 2015 than 2014 – inconsistent, with great examples of good provenance to perform well. One positive sale does not mean all Aboriginal art will immediately improve and all prices will go up…in fact far from it! However collectors are again realising just how rare and important the very best works by these artists are. 

What will have a material impact over time is the international market, particularly the USA. In December 2014, 8 works by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri sold at Art Miami for between USD$20,000-80,000 each, alongside individual paintings by Tommy Watson and George Hairbrush Tjungurrayi. There is currently an exhibition of paintings from the Western Desert on display in Aspen, Colorado. And the Scholl Collection will be touring museums in Nevada, Portland, Miami, Detroit and New York over 2015-2016.

Remember, the Aboriginal Art market is still 40% from its highs, and every indicator points to it being significantly undervalued. The window of opportunity to acquire great works at great value still exists, but the window is closing. 

Piermarq Art
A work by Tommy Watson is held up for auction as part of The Laverty Collection, Deutscher + Hackett, 8 March 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
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