No auctions of non-Aboriginal Australian art held internationally have come close to garnering this sort of attention. The Sotheby’s auction shows the sheer level of international interest in Aboriginal art, and the prestige Aboriginal art has for overseas collectors and institutions, compared to Australia. The auction also highlights the grossly disproportionate allocation of the financial rewards deriving from the sale of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island arts and artefacts.
Many of the works included in the auction are exempt from the resale royalty scheme, a system lobbied for by Aboriginal artists and industry representatives. This scheme has redistributed $4.3M to 1,200 artists since 2010.
Many of the most prestigious works sold include rare examples of shields and clubs from south eastern Australia, items that are scarcely represented in Australian Museum collections. No Australian buyers of these items are known. The works will likely recirculate through private international collections, only to resurface again when they are sold to future private collectors.
Experts have estimated that there may be as many as 250.000 Aboriginal items held in museums around the world. Many more are believed to be in private hands. This is an amazing figure given that today the Aboriginal community comprises 2 to 3 per cent of the Australian population, but not surprising given the importance that artefacts and artworks that represent the history of this culture holds in the eyes of astute international audiences.
Questions are increasingly being raised about the ethics of the original exchanges of Aboriginal artefacts. A shield from the Gweagle people (Botany Bay) acquired on Cooks’s 1770 voyage along the east coast of Australia is presently being petitioned for repatriation from the trustees of the British Museum to the descendants of the man that it was ‘aquired’ from. Its possession by the British Museum is unacceptable for many Aboriginal people, not only for those with ancestral lineage to the people from whom the shield was collected from. Historically speaking, it seems unfair to propose that the original owner could have given consent for the acquisition of the artefact in the first place.
Not all artefacts held by museums were unethically acquired. This perception denies the willingness of Aboriginal people to enter into relations of trade and exchange, as well as the many fascinating ways contemporary Aboriginal artists have used to gain a foot in the door of these international arts economies.
But artefacts such as the Gweagle shield do represent the unequal power relationships of the time that these items were collected. They symbolise the imbalanced power relationship between the crew of the Endeavour and the Gweagle people, and more broadly, the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land and the opportunity to represent their own history on their own terms.
The economic value of the shield is a baseline for auction prices of simular items, and subsequently why museum artefacts and contemporary artworks such as those in the recent Sotheby’s auction are intricately bound with the way that Aboriginal culture is represented on the world stage.
The cultural value for the Gweagle people is baseline for the resistance to the commodification of a history that is still waiting to be written in terms that are acceptable for the modern Aboriginal community. This being a pressing concern for many seeking to understand how these works can be owned and traded, divorced from their meanings.
Very few Aboriginal organisations or individuals would have the means of acquiring valuable artefacts even if they wanted to. For many the idea of ‘purchasing’ a piece of their connection to a history that was so violently taken from them is anathema, hence the strong support for dialogue with Museums about repatriation.
The contemporary Aboriginal art industry represents a profound historical shift among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island community whose increased willingness to develop networks of trade and exchange needs to be engaged with and invested in by more sections of the Australian community. This involves not just museums. If international audiences can see the value of preserving and maintaining Aboriginal culture, why is the industry constantly in a process of seeking additional support?
No other Australian economic enterprise outside of contemporary Aboriginal art has been so successful in putting cash into the hands of the most economically marginalised sections of the Australian community. Despite this, Aboriginal and Torres Strait artists’ knowledge, participation and ability to profit in the greater commercial and auction market is still lacking.
The Sotheby’s Auction prompts us to address the importance of increased participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in the economic aspects of auctions and commercial art industries, as intricately woven into the processes of economic empowerment, through cultural self-determination.
Matt Poll works in Sydney University and Macleay Museum as Curator for the Indigenous Heritage and Repatriation Project.