By Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios, on 01-Nov-2012

There’s no avoiding the fact that the auction trade in Aboriginal art is not looking great. A clearance rate of 48% is pretty bleak news in anyone’s language. Predictably, Sotheby’s October auction of Important Aboriginal Art generated another round of lamentation about the parlous state of the market. But how does it stack up against the market as a whole? Are things as bad as they seem?

Commentary tends to be reactive, focusing on the success (or otherwise) of individual auctions. A more revealing way of assessing the state of the market is to look at total sales figures over a period of time. When we plot the dollar value of art by Aboriginal artists sold at auction between 1988 and 2011 (Figure 1), a couple of things become apparent. For one thing, the ebb and flow of the Aboriginal art market is nothing new. During the last boom and bust cycle that occurred during the late 1980s and mid-1990s, sales of Aboriginal art dropped from a peak in 1988 to a rather dismal trough in 1992. Most of these artworks were watercolours from the Hermannsburg School.

As for the state of things today, the 2011 total of $8.16 million in sales is comparable to the amount sold in 2002, when the market in general was starting to heat up. “Back to 2002 levels? That’s not too bad”, you may well think. But before you get too excited, consider the same figures adjusted for inflation (Figure 2). The boom and bust of the ‘80s and ‘90s is still there, though it is interesting to see that that the adjusted total for 1988 isn’t far off the mark set in 1996. But it also shows that, in real terms, the value of Aboriginal art sold at auction in 2011 is on a par with the figures for 1998, rather than 2002. 1998 was the year after Sotheby’s launched their stand-alone auctions of contemporary Aboriginal art, but before the sector expanded during the ‘noughties. So, dollar for dollar, today’s market certainly isn’t what it once was.

The ‘noughties’ market expansion was kicked along by the interest of collectors who were cashed up with discretionary spending money drawn against rising real estate values and returns from the stock market. Others were eager to jump on the art-boom bandwagon by investing via self-managed super funds. Predictably, these buyers withdrew from the art market as the economy contracted in the post-GFC world and after the revision of superannuation laws. International collectors also retreated under the effects of the financial crisis, and a rising Australian dollar. The absence of buyers looking for large, contemporary Aboriginal paintings is immediately apparent today, both in the auction rooms, and in the results sheets. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised to find that the collectors who do remain still chase the artwork that caught their eye during the late 1990s. Well-priced early boards, historically significant canvases, and barks and artefacts still find buyers, as evidenced by the recent Kluge sale at Mossgreen, and Sotheby’s mid-year auction.

But is it all doom and gloom for the secondary market in Aboriginal art? Before you call the undertaker, consider the following. Another way of judging the state of play is to measure the figures against other art market sectors. When we break down the Australian art auction record by sector, it’s pretty clear that Sotheby’s launch of major ‘stand-alone’ auctions in 1997 was the single most important factor for establishing a secondary-market for Aboriginal art (Figure 3). The market share jumped from 4% in 1996 to 13% in 1997. Prior to that, the sale of Aboriginal art was responsible for generating just 1-2% of auction revenue in Australia. Although during the halcyon days that fell between 2004 and 2007 the total market share for Aboriginal art rose as high as 18%, the average for the sector between 1997 and 2011 was 12%. In light of this, the drop to 10% in 2010 and 8% in 2011 in itself doesn’t seem undue cause for alarm, providing the market share doesn’t drop any further.

So it seems that the loss in confidence suffered by the Aboriginal art auction market is not that different to the decline in prices for art by non-Indigenous Australian artists. It’s not too big a stretch to say that after the watershed year of 1997 when the volume of auction trade in Aboriginal art jumped suddenly and dramatically, the sector has ebbed and flowed in concert with movements across the entire auction spectrum. It’s not that the Aboriginal market alone boomed during the early- and mid-noughties – the entire market expanded and contracted over the same period, and at a comparable rate.

The greatest concern is not how much art is being bought and sold, but which Aboriginal art is attracting buyers’ interest. What does the changing landscape mean for the artists and art centre administrators in remote communities who are awaiting a much-anticipated bounty in the form of resale royalties gathered from the sale of contemporary Aboriginal art at auction?

A hint of what may be to come is found on Sotheby’s website in their post-auction postmortem; and the picture it paints isn’t great. The featured artwork is not a large Western Desert canvas, or even an early Papunya board. The illustrated work of art is by an unknown artist: ‘Fine Parrying Shield from South East Australia’.

Artist unknown.

No resale royalty pending there.

 

Figure 1: Total sales of Aboriginal art at auction, 1988-2011

(Figures: Australian Art Sales Digest)

1988            $666,000

1989            $527,000 

1990            $169,000 

1991            $181,000 

1992            $157,000 

1993            $315,000 

1994            $715,000 

1995            $1,354,000 

1996            $1,421,000 

1997            $4,421,000 

1998            $5,546,000 

1999            $5,440,000 

2000            $6,962,000 

2001            $6,917,000 

2002            $8,272,000 

2003            $10,918,000 

2004            $15,911,000 

2005            $15,411,000 

2006            $16,543,000 

2007            $26,455,000 

2008            $13,407,000 

2009            $12,552,000 

2010            $10,101,000 

2011            $8,164,000 

 

Figure 2: Total sales of Aboriginal art at auction, 1988-2011 adjusted for inflation.

(Based on data from the Australian Art Sales Digest)

1988            $1,328,000

1989            $977,448

1990            $292,000

1991            $303,000

1992            $260,000

1993            $513,000

1994            $1,143,000

1995            $2,068,000

1996            $2,115,000

1997            $6,565,000

1998            $8,165,000

1999            $7,893,000

2000            $9,700,000

2001            $9,202,000

2002            $10,686,000

2003            $13,729,000

2004            $19,549,000

2005            $18,438,000

2006            $19,113,000

2007            $29,870,000

2008            $14,507,000

2009            $13,345,000

2010            $10,435,000

2011            $8,164,000

 

Figure 3: Breakdown of the total $ value sales in the Australian art auction market by sector.

(Based on data from the Australian Art Sales Digest)

Year                Non-Aboriginal Aboriginal art International art

                       Australian art                             

1988                89%                 2%                     9%

1989                93%                 1%                     6%

1990                91%                 1%                     8%

1991                90%                 1%                     9%

1992                94%                 1%                     6%

1993                91%                 2%                     7%

1994                87%                 3%                     10%

1995                87%                 5%                     8%

1996                88%                 4%                     8%

1997                76%                 13%                   11%

1998                78%                 11%                   11%

1999                83%                 8%                     9%

2000                87%                 9%                     4%

2001                84%                 10%                   6%

2002                85%                 10%                   4%

2003                84%                 12%                   4%

2004                74%                 18%                   8%

2005                77%                 16%                   7%

2006                80%                 16%                   4%

2007                83%                 15%                   2%

2008                75%                 12%                   13%

2009                80%                 14%                   6%

2010                84%                 10%                   6%

2011                83%                 8%                     9%

 

About The Author

Dr Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios lectures in art history and cultural economics and is an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne. She also writes a blog, Art Matters.

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