Emu Dreaming, Tim Leura, 1975, Acrylic on Masonite, 12" x 20"

Contemporary Aboriginal Art is an exciting field, an emerging art market which has truly arrived over the last decade. It is new enough that excellent work is still affordable, yet established enough that the reputations of many major artists have already been firmly secured through extensive exhibition histories and the continuing desirability of their work in the auction market.

But as with any relatively young field, there are also any number of pitfalls to avoid when starting to collect. There is at times a confusing unevenness of quality in the work available by many "name" artists. Something to keep in mind is that Aboriginal artists are not careerists managing the marketing of their work with any long-term agenda (other than a cultural one), virtually everything they paint makes it into the marketplace. Most Aboriginal painters would consider themselves to be cultural custodians first and fine artists second. Occasionally, there can also be considerable hype in the marketing of their work that borders on misrepresentation. It is important to educate your eye by looking at museum catalogs, auction catalogs, and books on the subject (a link to a bibliography is posted on this page), and if it all possible by looking at the collections of the major museums around Australia. If you are moved by seeing the art as reproductions, seeing it in person will be a truly rewarding experience. Also a visit to the Northern Territory of Australia, taking in the light-filled landscape, seeing its sandhills, eroded creek beds, and crumbling rock formations will help put the abstraction in the paintings in perspective.


TVU 12. Merne Abundance, Emily Kngwarreye, 1994, 36" x 46"

The Aboriginal art market has exceeded all expectations over the last seven years, with older paintings of historic significance and great visual appeal achieving spectacular auction results. Contemporary Aboriginal paintings worth collecting generally range in price from U.S. $500 to U.S. $10,000. Important historic works (particularly those dating from the early 1970's) have in recent years achieved price levels of U.S. $20,000 to $150,000 at auction, with higher benchmarks expected. Extraordinary paintings scarcely a decade old by premier artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye have already established themselves in the U.S. $60,000 - $300,000 range.

Yet, the quality of Aboriginal art ranges from "airport art" to paintings of dazzlingly sophisticated execution and deep spiritual significance, which can make it hard for new collectors to find their bearings (not to mention the challenging nonwestern aesthetic of the work). In our opinion the best works produced in any given year probably constitute significantly less than 10% of the market as a whole, and are consequently always in high demand. Songlines is highly selective about the artist's we choose to work with as well as the quality of the works we exhibit. Many of the works on this site are comparable to works by the same artists hanging in major museums in Australia.



TVT 1. Bullock Hide Story, Rover Thomas, 1995, 52" x 78"


What makes great Aboriginal Art great? As most aboriginal painters are not careerists i.e. not often directly involved in self-promotion (although this is beginning to change), and generally don't develop long-term exclusive relationships with galleries, most promotional and market activity happens outside of the sphere of their endevours which remain primarily focused on producing the work, an act which is both personal and cultural in nature. For most Aboriginal painters the proper telling of their Dreaming in a painting is what remains of paramount importance. This is what makes their art strong and true, and these are the qualities that we value in Aboriginal paintings. The strength and rightness of a painting in Aboriginal eyes is what underlies the formal aesthetic power that so dazzles eyes educated in the tradition of western modern art.

Lastly, it is our belief that most significant Aboriginal art is painted at Aboriginal owned cooperatives, in the context of an Aboriginal community, where painting serves to maintain social cohesion and preserve traditional culture. The social and cultural context within which this art is created is a crucial factor in its aesthetic quality. Songlines Aboriginal Art works with the top community based artists, promising younger artists, as well as with secondary market works of historic significance. The following is a brief overview of how we look at the artist's work in regards to issues of the market, their careers, Aboriginal values, etc., and things to keep in mind when collecting.


DBY 8. Fire Dreaming, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, 2001, 36" x 48"

A few things to look for when collecting Australian Aboriginal paintings:

1. Innovation: artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye have achieved true art star status because of the innovative nature of their work, they are the exception rather than the rule, their work was always comparatively expensive and sought after. Now that both artists are deceased, high quality works are hard to find and pricey but the value of such works is only bound to increase in the coming years. Examples of artists who may fall into this category in the future are Kathleen Petyarre and Dorothy Napangardi.

2. Rarity: an era of art production that has passed or is passing. The conditions under which great Aboriginal art is produced are often somewhat fragile and can at times be regrettably short-lived (1971-1972 art work art from Papunya is a good example of this or bark paintings from Milingimi in the early 1960's). Quality paintings by any of the original painting men from Papunya, most of whom are sadly now deceased, are highly collectable for this reason.

3. Consistency: quality paintings by any of the core group of senior men and women who are year in and year out the mainstays of the various art centers at the communities, Paddy and Bessie Sims (Yuendumu) and Helicopter Tjungurrayi and Lucy Yukenbarri (Balgo), both incidentally husband and wife pairings are good examples of such artists.

4. Freshness and Promise: great images by artists who have not yet achieved recognition or who have only recently begun painting. Each trip through the painting communities we discover exciting works by artists with whom we're unfamiliar, if their work develops in a consistent way they often become quite well known. Billy Thomas is a great example, the gallery acquired his first five paintings and he has since become quite a success, an always interesting and at times innovative painter.

5. A good rule of thumb when collecting any art not just Aboriginal art is to buy the best painting you feel you can afford and to buy a strong image by an artist with a good reputation — and to buy on the strength of the painting and not just on name alone. A quality painting will hold value for a lifetime and perhaps many more but hype never lasts. Good luck and happy collecting!

David Betz      

Inquiries: (415) 871-5901 or e-mail: curator@aboriginal-art.com

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