Authenticity in Australian Aboriginal Art
Tjarlirli Art studio, Western Australia. Photo Tjarlirli Art.
Provenance & Authenticity in Australian Aboriginal Art
As Francesca Polo highlighted in two previous articles, the provenance of an art object has a significant impact on its value, and even its saleability. It necessarily encompasses two aspects: the authenticity of authorship; and the proof of ownership. Within Australian Aboriginal (or Indigenous) art, determining authorship and ownership come with cultural and market implications that may not be evident to the non-expert or international collector. As Aboriginal art gains in international importance, collectors need to understand the particularities of this market if they are to make acquisitions that will meet museum standards. There are many rewards to be gained from collecting Aboriginal art, but it is also an area where ethics and the path to market play significant roles in the validity and value of the provenance.
While we talk about “the Aboriginal art market” as a convenient short-hand in Australia, it would be more accurate to describe three market segments, each of which determines how likely a work is to be of museum quality. These are the community owned and operated art centres; established private dealer-community partnerships; and opportunistic private dealers.
For contemporary art, the museum sector values the community owned and operated art centres most highly, and acquisitions are sourced almost exclusively from this segment. Each art centre operates like an artists’ collective and is governed by a board of local Aboriginal elders, whose role it is to ensure that each member artist observes cultural protocol. Each artwork is uniquely documented, catalogued and issued with its own Certificate of Authenticity on art centre stationery, and no work can be sold without the approval of the board. Therefore the cultural integrity and authorship is guaranteed by the art centre. Further, these centres receive government funding and are externally audited. Pricing is set by the individual art centre, with the exhibition quality works being consigned to city-based galleries; the majority of the sale price is returned to the artist and art centre.
Disclosure: my gallery exclusively represents community based art centres. This is because we believe these centres offer the best outcomes for both artists and collectors.
Katjarra Butler painting at Tjarlirli Art. Photo Tjarlirli Art.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the private “dealers” who have loose arrangements with individual artists, some of whom are members of community based art centres. You will often hear them referred to as “carpetbaggers”. At best, these arrangements are opportunistic, with the dealer providing materials to the artists and a cash or in-kind payment. These works may then be sold through their own galleries or wholesaled to galleries elsewhere, usually at significantly higher prices; or cleared through minor auctions houses. At worst, these dealers are exploitative, abusive, and/or fraudulent. This segment preys on the financial vulnerability of Aboriginal people and it relies on the naivety of the uninformed buyer in order to make money. While they’ll profess a love of the art and culture, their motivation is profit, not curatorship. They target high profile art centre artists so they can cash in on a valuable name. It is very common that the artworks are done by younger Aboriginal people who are paying off a debt to the dealer. Backpackers have also been known to be employed to paint works copied from books. They issue their own certificates of authenticity accompanied by photos or videos of the supposed artist completing said work. The most recent high profile case involving accusations of fraud and misattribution was exposed at the beginning of the year in a series of articles in The Australian newspaper.
In the middle are the private dealer arrangements with communities, some of which span many years. The art studios are run and maintained as private businesses owned by a non-Aboriginal person. The best examples remunerate and treat the artists fairly and observe cultural protocol; these are respected and accepted by the industry, including museums, but they are few in number. Others operate on the fringes of transparency, making it difficult to ascertain the credibility of their claims and they have as many advocates as detractors.
There are also temporal considerations when establishing provenance, as the date of creation may affect the trustworthiness of the stated authorship. The founding and gradual rise of the community owned art centre Papunya Tula Artists in the early 1970s, set the scene for the Aboriginal art market that was to explode about 20 years later. The late 1980s to early 2000s saw a mushrooming of community based art centres opening throughout the deserts and remote coastal regions, many of which are still in operation. Governments saw these centres as viable places for Aboriginal employment and economic production. These centres quickly established themselves as reliable and trustworthy sources of high quality art that was being produced to high ethical standards. The assurance of a community based certificate of authenticity removed the risk of buying misattributed or fraudulent work. The museums and collectors began amassing collections like never before, the market attracted a large number of speculators, and prices began to rise rapidly. With the boom came the carpetbaggers and fraudsters.
For works created prior to the art centre movement, a complete provenance can be more difficult to establish, particularly as artists rarely sign work. Aboriginal art was not valued highly or widely prior to the 1980s, which often means that it wasn’t documented and catalogued, many sales transactions were private (direct from artist to buyer), and sales receipts – if they existed – may have been lost. Some of these works can be very valuable if good provenance can be established. Generally, though, the level of fraudulent activity prior to the 1980s was very low, due to there being almost no market for Aboriginal art.
Pungkai, Tali Tjuta, 2015, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Zadra.
There is a final reason - as yet unidentified by the market - why I believe impeccable provenance should be at the top of any collector’s due diligence list: cultural restitution. I base this prediction on major historic precedents. When I moved to Alice Springs in 1980, Aboriginal land rights were just coming to the fore. A decade earlier, the idea that Aboriginal people could lay claim to pastoral property was unthinkable; now, hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of land have been returned to Aboriginal communities. In 2002, I was researching the repatriation of Australian Aboriginal human remains from UK and Australian public institutions. Museums in Australia were already actively repatriating remains and had been for years, whereas the UK was claiming scientific privilege and invoked the British Museums Act 1963 to prevent deaccession of material. Two years later, the UK introduced the Human Tissue Act 2004 to allow the return of certain remains to their country of origin. Currently in Australia, there is a groundswell of support for the Constitution to be amended to recognise Aboriginal people as the original inhabitants; the debate now is about how such an inclusion should be worded.
These events have come about due to rebalances in the distribution of power that is giving Aboriginal people a more equal footing. Over the past 35 years of witnessing these developments, I am convinced that in the near future there will be concerted moves to have past and present injustices of the art market corrected. This will be partly fuelled by the desire to protect their culture and the integrity of the deceased, as well as to benefit from the rising value of their art. An element of that will be removing from circulation artwork that is fraudulent or culturally inappropriate.
Already we are seeing artists distance themselves from works that are being produced for and marketed by private dealers. As the younger generation of iPhone-wielding desert kids arm themselves with university degrees and more enter public life, we’ll see a re-writing of what is and is not authentic Aboriginal art. I suspect that much of the art created under duress, or by non-family members, or purely for quick cash, will become contested objects. There may even be demands for financial compensation for artists who were exploited or kept in bonded labour. Some claims may be framed as theft if there is no evidence of the artist being paid.
The late art critic Robert Hughes said that Australian Aboriginal art is the greatest art movement of the late 20th century. Many would extend that relevance to the present day. No other art movement offers us a direct connection to the beginnings of living human memory. It’s a movement informed by over 40,000 years of continuous culture and the stories at the centre of genuine works are complex, profound and mysterious.
If you are new to buying Aboriginal art, take some time to research the primary and secondary markets, check the affiliations of galleries and dealers, do not take membership of an industry association on face value (some dealers use this for marketing leverage), and look carefully at what works are being acquired by Australian art museums and from which sources. Impeccable provenance is always king.
Pungkai in the studio. Photo Galerie Zadra.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen Zadra is owner and director of Galerie Zadra, formerly Marshall Arts Adelaide, a leading specialist commercial gallery that has worked closely with museums, major collectors and researchers for 15 years. Karen has over 35 years of experience in Aboriginal art and culture and is an accredited valuer for Indigenous art under the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Scheme, which provides tax benefits to donors. She holds an MA in Museum Studies (Leicester).
For a list of community based art centres, visit the websites of the peak advocacy bodies for remote Aboriginal art centres:
Central and Western Desert art centres
Northern, Tiwi and Torres Strait Island art centres