By Adrian Newstead, on 01-Sep-2009

Despite their lack of pedigree, three early desert boards were the star performers in Mossgreen’s Fine Early Aboriginal and Oceanic Art sale held at Randwick Racecourse on Monday evening. The sale yielded $690,172 including buyer’s premium resulting in a 62% result by value and 58% clearance rate by volume. Of the six early desert works on canvas and composition board collected by specialist Bill Evans, four sold, generating $184,030, or 27% of the sales total.

The modest catalogue that included only the first 50 lots accompanied by a DVD with high resolution PDF images of the remainder may have worked against the final result as the clearance rate dropped sharply from the 70% generated for the catalogued lots with only 55% of those illustrated on the DVD finding new homes.

The majority of the best pieces however, were illustrated in the hard cover catalogue adorned with the most exciting lots on its front and back covers. Lot 10, the early work on cardboard by western desert art founder Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri sold to Melbourne dealer Hank Ebes for a lower than expected $65,725, still well over twice its presale high estimate. There is no doubt it will prove to have been a most canny purchase if ever it finds its way back to the market again. Ebes, best known as the former owner of the Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings in Melbourne’s Bourke Street which closed at the beginning of this year, paid just $39,000 in 1989 for Clifford Possum’s magnificent masterpiece Warlurkulong, 1976 which, after holding pride of place in his Melbourne home for almost 20 years, sold to the National Gallery of Australia for $2.4 million, the current record for a work of Australian Aboriginal art.

The very fine and large painting on chipboard by Charlie Taruru (Taruwa) Tjungurrayi (Lot 24 ) had been previously purchased for just $23,400 in Sotheby’s 2007 sale when carrying an estimate of just $8,000 - 12,000. London dealer Rebecca Hossack secured this impressive work for $50,190, netting the vendor a very healthy profit in just two years. Hossack also captured Lot 12, attributed to Long Jack Phillipus for $19,120 on behalf of an undisclosed UK client and pulled up only just short of getting a trifecta when the very nice early Johnny Warrangula 1971 canvas work (Lot 18 ) exceeded her limit, having been pushed by a bidder in the room to $48,995. The work, formerly owned by Bob Edwards when Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board in the early 1970’s, had previously been unsuccessfully offered at Sotheby’s in July 2006.

The reception was mixed toward the Aboriginal tribal artefacts with the premier lots illustrated in the catalogue selling well while later pieces failed to excite. Both the relatively small number of buyers in the room and those few active bidders by phone found the estimates too steep for the mediocre pieces.

The sale had been significantly enhanced by works from the Tarlton Collection as well as the contents of an old tea chest discovered in Bundaberg, Northern Queensland, which contained amongst other treasures a large number of old Massim objects and several quality Aboriginal artifacts. The tea chest contained several superb oceanic items. Amongst them the Mutuaga seated figure (Lot 30 ), which sold for $7,170 against a presale estimate of $5,000 - 7,000, and the extremely rare and unusual south-eastern Massim ridgepole ornament (Lot 38 ) estimated at $3000 - 4,000, which achieved $7,170 on the night. Tarlton’s 19th century middle Sepik shield (Lot 32 ) was a most beautiful elegant large piece estimated at a very reasonable $10,000 - 12,000 and it sold against spirited phone bidding for $21,510. The imposing, and powerful upper Sepik post figure from the collection of Barry Hoare estimated at $35,000 - 40,000 (Lot 40 ), justified its presale estimate when sold for $43,020 however the large fine 19th century Maori treasure box estimated at $65,000 - 70,000 (Lot 42 ) failed to attract any bidders on the night and was passed in, although Evan’s reported strong post sale interest the following day.

The barks in this sale were disappointing. Even the best of them performed badly. Even Yirawala’s Mimi Figures and Kangaroos (Lot 8 ) failed to excite buyers and achieved just $6572, surely one of the bargains of the night.

Mossgreen proprietor Paul Sumner chose to place the 35 desert acrylics and ochre paintings that remained in the estate of former Sydney collector Ross Jones, in to its single owner estate sale the evening prior to the Tribal offering. Of these works 17 sold for a total value of just over $100,000 with the most newsworthy results being the $8,962 and $15,535 paid for two very fine Tiwi ochre works on canvas measuring 120 x 200 cm ochre by Tiwi elders Marie Evelyn Puautjimi and Jean Baptiste Apuatimi, and the $29,900 paid for a Chris Simon provenanced work by Naata Nungurrayi worth more than twice this result on the current primary market.

Despite mixed results Mossgreen did a healthy $800,000 worth of business in Aboriginal, tribal and oceanic art over the weekend. Sumner and Evan’s are reportedly very happy with the result and remain committed to building their yearly tribal art offering. If this sale proved anything, it is that there is a discerning market for very fine tribal pieces and that there is a strong demand for quality pieces, which will sell no matter what the economic climate. It is to be hoped that Evan’s continues to uncover pieces of distinction while damping down the overly ambitious expectations of vendors with less than exceptional work. With keener estimates on many of the minor pieces this Mossgreen sale, dealers would have snapped up the remainder and the sale would have proven all the more successful.


Sale Referenced:

About The Author

Adrian Newstead co-founded Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery, Australia’s oldest exhibiting Aboriginal art gallery, in 1981. He is a valuer of Aboriginal and contemporary Australian art accredited by the Federal Department of the Arts, and acted as the Head of Aboriginal Art for Lawson~Menzies Auction House 2003-2006, and Managing Director of Menzies Art Brands 2007-2008. Adrian Newstead Fine Art Consultancy compiles and maintains profiles, statistics and market analytics on the most important 200 Aboriginal artists and acts for, and advises, collectors when buying and selling collectable Australian artworks at auction and through private sale. A widely published arts commentator and author, Adrian is based in Bondi, New South Wales.