An expert in Aboriginal art selects the 8 best batches of Australian Aboriginal artists who are all the rage this week at Sotheby’s

First, Larry Gagosian filled its Madison Avenue premises featuring works by Australian Aboriginal desert painters. Next, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced a new gallery dedicated to contemporary Australian Indigenous art would be part of its redesign of the Rockefeller Wing.

Today, Sotheby’s New York donated its annual award Aboriginal Art Auction a big boost, moving the live sale from a low-key winter slot to the month of May.

These efforts by three of the most important players in the Manhattan art world suggest that – behind the scenes, at least – Indigenous Australian art is now part of the conversation like never before. This Wednesday’s selloff will publicly test the market’s appetite.

Sotheby’s seems confident competition for the 103 lots will justify moving the calendar to May 25, calling the auction’s combined high estimate of $5,884,000 conservative.

“This is the best selection of major Aboriginal paintings ever offered at Sotheby’s New York, and we have seen unprecedented interest,” says Tim Klingender, the auction house’s senior consultant for Australian art and veteran of the secondary market in Australia.

Compared to previous sales in the series, there are fewer paintings of young people and cult stars and more top-notch works that have already proven themselves on the secondary market.

But that doesn’t mean the catalog lacks variety: it opens with shields and boomerangs from the early 1800s, then crosses the centuries, ending with contemporary photographs and textual works.

Klingender admits that those still familiar with the changing market may find the scale of the sale daunting. For information, Artnet News spoke with prominent dealer D’Lan Davidson, who has co-presented three recent Indigenous Australian exhibitions with Gagosian and has worked at Sotheby’s himself.

These are the eight lots that Davidson suggests paying close attention to.

Guillaume Barac

Corroboree (Women in opossum skin capes) (1897)

Guillaume Barak, Corroboree (Women in opossum skin capes) (1897). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $300,000 to $400,000.

Why it is desirable: “This rare work is the real find of the sale,” says Davidson. Barak’s figurative paintings and drawings were part of his efforts to affirm and preserve First Nations culture during colonization, and it is believed that only about 50 survive. “Most are now in institutional hands,” says Davidson. This examplewhich has been privately owned in Switzerland since 1897, could also be reserved for museums: an Aboriginal heritage organization in Melbourne has launched a crowdfunding campaign in an attempt to obtain it for an Australian institution.


Mimih Ceremony (circa 1960)

Jambalula, Mimih Ceremony (circa 1960). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $30,000 to $40,000

Why it is desirable: “I fondly remember seeing this painting on display at the Met, alongside several other lots from the auction that were part of a long-term loan,” says Davidson. “What sets it apart from other bark paintings in the sale is the wonderful repeating composition depicting the ceremony.” Davidson says the use of repeated figures in ceremonial works like this and Barak’s drawing creates an energetic viewing experience, akin to watching cellular animation.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Alhalkere—old emu man with babies (1989)

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Alhalkere—old emu man with babies (1989). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $500,000 to $800,000

Why it is desirable: The Sotheby’s sale features no less than 10 works by Kngwarreye, the eminent Australian contemporary painter and the subject of a solo exhibition organized by Gagosian and Davidson in Paris earlier this year. This lot dates from 1989, only one year after he started painting on canvas. “It’s widely considered the seminal work of the era,” says Davidson, and he expects it to perform well when sold. “Emily’s market continues to grow, especially outside of Australia,” he says.

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri

Untitled (Country of the artist’s grandmother) (1990)

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Untitled (Country of the artist’s grandmother) (1990). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $150,000 to $200,000

Why it is desirable: “This is another exquisitely composed large-format work by one of the most important founding fathers of Western Desert art,” says Davidson, referring to the 1970s movement in which Aboriginal artists began depicting their culture on canvas rather than bark and rock. “It is highly appreciated by connoisseurs of the artist’s work.” Like many contemporary Australian Indigenous works, the painting looks purely abstract but contains cartographic and narrative elements.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Merne All V (1993)

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Merne All V (1993). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $400,000 to $600,000

Why it is desirable: Kngwarreye only painted on canvas for seven years, but explored more styles during that time than many artists had for decades. This brilliant work of 11 feet dates from her middle period, when she expanded her palette and began to use much larger dots, saturating the frame. The period divides opinions, which explains the relatively modest estimate of this lot. “Generally speaking, the strongest areas of collection in Emily’s market are the early and late periods,” says Davidson. “However, the artist produced a small number of well-composed and monumental works of the middle period which still command a different kind of attention. This is one of those pictures.

Naata Nungurrayi

marrapinti (2002)

Naata Nungurrayi, marrapinti (2002). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $80,000 to $120,000

Why it is desirable: A leading Western Desert artist of the Papunya Tula school, Nungurrayi is a critics’ favorite that Davidson says has yet to reach its peak in the market. “Due to cultural law, women in Papunya were not formally allowed to paint until 1996,” he explains. “Soon after, Naata became the most accomplished of all Papunya painters. The painting offered is an outstanding example by this most underrated artist.

Makinti Napanangka

Lupulnga (2003)

Makinti Napanangka, Lupulnga (2003). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $120,000 to $180,000 USD

Why it is desirable: Like Nungarrayi, Napanangka (c.1930-2011) began painting for Papunya Tula Artists in the 1990s and currently commands lower prices than some of his male contemporaries. But that’s changing, Davidsons says, in part because a number of important works have recently hit the secondary market. “There are only a handful of paintings of this large scale created by the artist registered with Papunya Tula Artists, making it a extremely rare picture,” he adds.

Daniel Walbidi

Kirriwirri (2010)

Daniel Walbidi, Kirriwirri (2010). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Presale estimate: $80,000 to $120,000

Why it is desirable: Could Walbidi be the first practicing Australian Aboriginal painter to ‘break through’ internationally? Davidson thinks he should be, and kickstarts the process by hosting a Walbidi solo show in New York in October with the artist’s representative, Short Street Gallery. “I think it’s fair to say that as a practicing artist, Daniel has now hit a ceiling in the limited Australian market,” says Davidson. “A very good national auction result earlier this year set a precedent, but I think this work offered will be eclipse that.

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James C. Tibbs