Published: December 30, 2019
On December 13, Sotheby’s conducted its inaugural sale of Aboriginal Art in New York City after more than 20 years of selling the category in London and Melbourne. The tightly curated sale of 33 lots was 88 percent sold by lot, grossed $2.8 million and saw eight new auction records set. The department is led by senior consultant Tim Klingender, who began working for Sotheby’s Australia in 1990 eventually becoming an international director, a role he held from 1998 to 2009. In 1996, he founded a department dedicated to Aboriginal art, which held its inaugural sale in Melbourne in 1997. Antiques & The Arts Weekly caught up with Klingender on the heels of his first North American sale to read the pulse of a market that, in his words, has a very bright future.
How have your sales evolved?
Even before 1996, when we set up the department, we included Aboriginal art with contemporary art sales in Australia but because we had such international interest, we decided to hold standalone sales, the first of which we had in 1997. We toured highlights from the sales internationally, in New York that year, and in following years to New York and Cologne or Los Angeles, Paris and ultimately London.
Did you have an international tour of highlights with this most recent sale?
We did not do an international tour with this most recent sale, but two of the most important works were on view in November during our exhibitions for our marquee auctions of Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary Art in New York.
What motivated the move from selling in London to selling in New York City?
The sales in London were very successful. We set new records in every category in the field – sculpture, bark paintings, artefacts, artwork by a living artist, etc, and numerous artists records. We had a lot of bidding from America and the opportunity came up to hold a sale in New York, so we pitched the idea to our colleagues in the United States who liked the idea. I’ve always had a feeling that New York City might work better for this sale.
Is this a global market or are the major players – both buyers and sellers – primarily based in Australia?
We have seen only a small percentage of buyers from Australia in the international sales. In our New York sale, only one of the top ten lots went to an Australian collector, the rest went to either European or American collectors. In the London sales, we would have just a few lots returning to Australia but those were larger sales. As far as sellers, in this most recent sale, about half of the lots were from Australia, primarily from the Gabrielle Pizzi collection and the Fiona Brockhoff collection. We also had 12 works consigned by the renowned Dutch collector, Thomas Vroom. Interestingly, the buyer of the top lot was a collector of Western contemporary art.
What is the current record for Australian Aboriginal art?
The most expensive piece of Aboriginal art is $2.1 million ($2.4m Australian dollars), which Sotheby’s achieved for Clifford Possum’s “Warlugulong,” a large masterwork from 1979, when they offered it in Melbourne in 2007.
What are some of the most important aspects you consider of Aboriginal art at this level?
Provenance is the most important. Our sales only feature the rarest and most exceptional works, and they must be by artists who are represented by an Aboriginal art center. At these art centers, professionals assist the artists, record and document the works; it’s a hugely successful endeavor and one that, ethically, prevents artists from being exploited.
Do the Aboriginal artists benefit financially from the sales of these works?
When paintings are sold via an Aboriginal Art Centre, artists are remunerated in line with major represented contemporary artists. Many of the artists in this auction are no longer alive. In the case of living artists, high secondary market prices lift primary market prices, and in turn the amount received by living artists for their work. An artist’s resale royalty is not applicable to any New York art sales. The primary Aboriginal art market in Australia is currently stronger than ever, with all exhibitions of ethically sourced, higher quality artworks constantly selling out.
How has the market for Aboriginal art changed in recent years?
The market is constantly changing. It was definitely affected by the financial crisis in 2009. The Australian government introduced changes to the Movable of Cultural Heritage Act in 1998, which meant that an export permit was required for anything older than 30 years and worth more than $10,000. The permit typically took more than a year to obtain, and it virtually became impossible to trade these items. However, three years ago, the law changed, and the market opened back up. Some very high value works still need a permit, but now for the most part, all quality art works can move freely out of Australia. Interestingly, because most of the collectors of the greatest artworks live outside of Australia, we have had sales in recent years with little consigned from there.
Will Sotheby’s New York only sell contemporary Aboriginal art or will it also sell older works?
That was the way this sale came together; it doesn’t always happen that way. If we get a collection of important early works, we will certainly include them. The works in our sales are arranged chronologically, with earlier works selling first. We do not want sales too large; we want to offer the very finest selection of art created by Indigenous Australians. I imagine the sales will never exceed 100 lots, more likely 60-70 lots.
Did you have any new buyers in the New York sale? What is the general demographic?
We did have a good number of new buyers. Most of the buyers are between 40 and 60 years of age.
When is your next sale in New York and do you have anything already lined up for that sale you can give us a scoop on?
We are still working on it; it will most likely be in the fall.
What is your forecast for this market?
Despite a few bumps in the road, I’ve always said the market for Aboriginal art has been on a long trajectory upwards. It is a market that has tremendous global interest and one that will appeal to younger generations as they come into wealth. The more people become aware of it, the more museums acquire important works and promote academic involvement, the more the market will develop. I see it having a very bright future.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm