There’s a longer history here than you might realize.
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Peter Brant’s Clarification
- “The crime of tax evasion is a serious felony and implies the tax payer did not pay taxes that were owing. Mr. Brant’s guilty plea related to the misdemeanor of failing to keep proper tax records and contained no element that he evaded or failed to pay his taxes.”
Aboriginals Come to New York
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Summer Celebration 1991 ($300-500k)
Sotheby’s announcement today that it would move the Aboriginal art auctions from London to New York this Fall has more than one interesting backstory. The first is the internationalization of the Aboriginal art market; second, we’re seeing the continuation of Sotheby’s efforts to promote new names out of collecting categories to greater visibility; and, third, we’re beginning to see the stirrings of what kind of strategies Sotheby’s massive new exhibition space might enable.
Many saw the Washington Post article on Steve Martin’s exhibition of Aboriginal artists at Gagosian that opened on May 3rd. In Sebastian Smee’s story, Martin shares his enthusiasm for Aboriginal art which was kindled by a near-accidental encounter through Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn’s gallery, Salon 94. Martin bought from Rohatyn and then started learning as much as he could, buying a couple of dozen more works along the way.
“You go in with no education and you’re on eBay, you know, looking at things,” Martin says. “And then you start to educate yourself.”
Steve Martin is looking for art on eBay, really?
Anyway, he then mounted his own show out at a Queens storage facility, complete with a catalogue and essay. Martin’s enthusiasm was infectious enough to spread to Larry Gagosian who proposed the current show. Martin hopes the attention will inspire more interest among collectors similar to his important show of Canadian artist Lawren Harris’s work that had an influential run around the country three years ago. Smee says,
Martin is simply hoping good things come from the show. What he’d really love (and discussions are underway) is a focused, carefully selected museum show.
What’s odd about this tale of discovery, and there’s no reason to doubt a word of it, is that two sophisticated, plugged-in and active art world denizens would have remained unaware of Aboriginal art until now. That’s worth taking a step back to understand.
Prior to the global financial crisis in 2008, Aboriginal art had experienced a major boom in Australia—generating something like $200m a year in sales. A record price of $1.1m was achieved in 2007 for a work by artist Clifford Possum.
These prices were the culmination of decades of cultivation. The first Aboriginal painters did not produce work on preservable media until 1972. As Martin points out, many of the works are “downloads” of millennia-old practices:
I love the idea that prior to 1970, there was sand, body painting and carving. And then this whole download onto board and canvas comes spontaneously.
Since then the artistic production among Aboriginal persons went through four distinct phases, according to Arthur Lubow who wrote about Aboriginal art for Smithsonian Magazine nearly a decade ago:
In the first, which lasted barely a year, sacred practices and ritual objects were often depicted in a representational style. That was dangerous: certain rituals, songs and religious objects are strictly off limits to women and uninitiated boys. […] In response to the furor, artists began to avoid forbidden images or conceal them under dotting, stippling and cross-hatches. So began the next period. […] In the third period, the art found a commercial market with acclaimed, large-scale canvases in the 1980s. And the fourth period, roughly from the 1990s to the present, includes lower-quality commercial paintings—disparaged by some art dealers as “dots for dollars”—that slake the tourist demand for souvenirs.
According to Sotheby’s Tim Klingender who has run their sales since their establishment in 1996, “the global financial crisis hit the overall Australian Art market much harder than the US or other markets.” It didn’t help that the market leader, Sotheby’s a licensed operator in Australia, closed in 2009. A big part of the problem was the commodities boom that took place around the same time driving up the value of the Australian dollar.
“The Australian dollar rose significantly to a level of more that 30% above where it is now against the $USD,” Klingender says. That choked off a market where half of the serious action at the high end comes from buyers outside of Australia. Of course, it didn’t help that Australia also clamped down on “Movable Cultural Heritage,” requiring any work 20 years old and worth more than $10k AUS to be issued an export permit. Processing those permits was incredibly slow. Recently, the Australian government reviewed the process and have made it “simple to export the vast majority of artworks.”
With these changes, Sotheby’s revived their Aboriginal art sales in London in 2015.
“The market in Australia is strong in the primary market and has greatly recovered in the secondary market,” Klingender says, “though a larger percentage of sales are made privately rather than at auction, and the most significant results have been achieved by Sotheby’s at auction in London.”
Meanwhile, in the US there has been steady interest in Aboriginal art. Early collectors John and Barbara Wilkerson bought some of the works set down on masonite in the 70s from that first phase. Collectors of folk art, the Wilkersons traveled to Australia in 1994 where they caught the bug. They showed their collection in New York at NYU. There has been a show at the Mettoo. Some museums in the US like the Perez in Miami and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC have held shows from the collection of Debra and Dennis Scholl. The Harvard Art Museum had a major exhibition in 2016 entitled ‘Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia.’ In September the Menil Collection in Houston will exhibit a major collection of Aboriginal art from the Fondation Opale in Switzerland.
The second part of the backstory here is that Sotheby’s has been pursuing a strategy of promoting artists who were previously confined to collecting categories to the main stage wherever they can. The process can be a painstaking one. It doesn’t always work out.
When it does, not only is the artist’s market transformed with a huge injection of value, but Sotheby’s gains by having more work to sell that is more valuable. Sotheby’s recently began to see a payoff on that strategy with Joaquin Torres-Garcia, the Uruguayan artist normally sold in Latin American sales, who achieved a record price of $3.38m for Construccion en Blanco in last week’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale. They’ve been doing it for a few seasons with artists who used to be sold only in African American art auctions like Barkley Hendricks who made a $3.74m record price on a work that Sotheby’s had sold within the previous two years.
This is how auction houses add value. Before you dismiss it as mere hype there are more than a few artists who command huge prices these days that were sold in collecting category sales only a decade or two ago.
Hype—or marketing—is what the auction houses are built for. Sotheby’s has now been rebuilt to take advantage of the seasonal swell of foot traffic. The 90,000 square feet of exhibition space that’s now available on York Avenue spawned this change. Let’s give the final word to Klindender who explains that they are moving the sales to New York to take advantage of the global audience that passes through that chokepoint:
Our newly expanded galleries will now allow us to exhibit Aboriginal Art concurrently with our marquee Contemporary Art sales, which we see as an ideal synergy. Our recent London sales have proven that the market for this field is global, with the largest percentage of buyers coming from the US. We believe that the best Aboriginal Art is of global importance and interest, and are introducing sales to New York accordingly.