Emily Kngwarreye's floral work "My Country, 1993" went under the hammer at Bonhams Fine Art auction house in Woollahra on Tuesday night. Despite having an estimated price of $150,000 to $200,000, the painting sold for $414,800 including a premium.
The piece, which measures almost four metres in length, had been owned by Sir Elton and his husband David Furnish for two decades. The couple are well known for their extensive private art collection.
The artwork was part of a stellar line-up of Australian and Aboriginal art, including works by Brett Whiteley, Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman and Albert Namatjira.
About 35% of the artworks on auction were Indigenous works, including over 25 contemporary canvases, 1960s barks and a rainforest shield repatriated from a French collection.
Emily Kngwarreye, from the Utopia community in the Northern Territory, is considered one of the most prominent and successful artists in the history of contemporary Indigenous Australian art. She passed away in 1996.
Bonhams, the art auction house organising the event, describes the artwork as “a visual florilegium of abundant plant growth, expressed with a gestural intensity and bravado that emerges from a deep understanding of the forces of nature at work across Kngwarray's traditional lands of Alhalker."
With ‘My Country’ “the artist alludes to the 'sporadic growth of plants in different stages of maturity'.
“The yellow ochre in the painting is a specific reference to the pencil yam plant arlatyey or anwelarr (anooralya) and its seed-bearing flowers or kam that construct Emily's totemic identity and her tribal name.”
Bonhams Australia art expert Merryn Schriever told NITV News it had been a privilege for the auction house to have the work on display.
“A lot of people have come to see it; collectors and people from museums.”
Ms Schriever described the painting as “enormous and wonderful”, and given the size of the artwork “it’s immersive … a triumph for anyone to execute,” especially given Emily Kngwarreye was between 76 and 77-years-old when she painted it.
Many of Emily Kngwarreye’s works “deal with the land and the natural world … [her] heritage of gathering of food and passing of seasons that is fundamental cultural knowledge, as its survival” Ms Schriever explained.
Emily Kngwarreye’s paintings often feature “things happening beneath and above the soil. But in this case, it’s about the abundance at that time of year,” she said.
“This example was painted at the start of summer, a particular time in the central desert. It’s the dry time. At times there can be rain storms, and that results in beautiful displays of flowers and growth.”
Ms Schriever told NITV News well-known art collector, businessman and philanthropist Patrick Corrigan owned the painting before Elton John and David Furnish purchased it in 1997. Mr Corrigan had purchased the painting directly from the Delmore Gallery which represented the artist.
According to Ms Schriever, Mr Corrigan came to the gallery to see the painting one more time before it went under the hammer.
“He was delighted and quite overwhelmed to see it again,” she said.
While the painting was part of Elton John’s extensive collection, it was shown in a series of important retrospective exhibitions in Japan and Australia, traveling to cities including Osaka, Tokyo and Canberra.
Ms Schriever told NITV News that given that the current Resale Royalty Right for Visual Artists Act, which came into effect in 2009 only applies to second resale of artworks, whoever acquires the painting on Tuesday won’t have to pay royalties. However, if a person or institution buys the painting again in Australia, they would have to pay royalties to the artist’s surviving family.
"The resale royalties act mirrors the copyright act, which means it is valid for the life of the artists plus 70 years, and proceeds go to family members after the artists has passed away," she said.