• Emily Kame Kngwarreye painting ‘Earth’s Creation I’. (Supplied/Cooee Art)Source: Supplied/Cooee Art
An International Aboriginal Art auction that was expected to break all-time sales records on Tuesday will now go ahead this evening after an allegedly ‘suspicious’ surge in traffic appeared to crash their website.
Claudianna Blanco

16 Nov 2017 - 3:19 PM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2017 - 4:05 PM

An international online auction, run by Cooee Art Marketplace and Fine Art Bourse (F.A.B.) had to be postponed after an alleged “unusually high surge of traffic from international viewers flocking to the site at 6pm sharp" overloaded the server.

The highly-anticipated auction of Aboriginal & Oceanic Works originally scheduled for Tuesday was expected to break Australian art records, as it featured celebrated artist Emily Kgwarreye’s coveted masterpiece, ‘Earth Creation I”, which has held the auction record for a female Australian artist for more than a decade.

The estimated sale price for this massive painting is $2-3 million. Other prized pieces for sale include works by renowned Aboriginal artists, such as Nyurrapaya Nampitjinpa (Mrs. Bennett), Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Bill Whiskey, Tommy Watson, and Kimberley painters Rover Thomas, Queenie Mckenzie and Freddie Timms, among others. 

The auctioneers have appointed a cybersecurity company to work with the Federal Police on the matter, as the incident appears to have been a deliberate cyber attack.

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IT specialist and newly appointed Director of Fine Art Bourse Limited, William Ehmcke, told NITV News the servers received over 20,000 hits from unknown sources in the Ukraine, which resulted in a “denial of service”.   

Fine Art Bourse IT Project Manager Carl Welsby said the site experienced 170,000 server processes at once, at the exact time the auction was scheduled to start.  

This meant “the server had to put all these requests and users in a queue to process, causing the web page to stop loading,” Mr Welsby explained.

“The result was that the auction platform was unable to manage legitimate requests to process transactions. The timing and the size of the attacks suggest a paid, deliberate and successful attack resulting in F.A.B.’s inability to proceed with the auction,” Mr Ehmcke said.

“There is also evidence that the auction platform database was hacked, just prior to the auction launch, to further disrupt the sale process.  All client data has now been removed from the F.A.B. database.”

The auction is the result of a partnership between Cooee Arts founder, Adrian Newstead, and Tim Goodman, a veteran Australian auctioneer, who was formerly the chairman of Sotheby’s Australia and before that, the head of “rival auction house Bonhams and Goodman”, as reported by the Art Collector magazine.

Mr Goodman left Sotheby’s Australia to launch Fine Art Bourse in 2015, but had to close the company due to financial difficulties. He relaunched F.A.B. 12 months later, this time as a fully online auction house model designed to “disrupt the traditional auction business model where buyers pay 25 per cent buyer’s premium, whereas at F.A.B the BP is 5 per cent”.

Mr Goodman told The Australian earlier this year “he wanted to challenge the dominance of traditional auction houses whose model was no longer sustainable”.

“I believe the time is right now to use all the advantages of digital technology to break down the costs of bricks and mortar, the thousands of staff that are ­involved in the traditional model and also the hundreds of tonnes of paper used for printing catalogues,” he said back in July.

Disruptor disrupted

Cybersecurity expert, Professor Greg Austin from the Australian Centre for Cybersecurity at UNSW Canberra, told NITV News that even though he can’t verify the allegations of an attack without accessing the data, the claims seem “highly credible”, as the “Ukraine is a major source of cyber criminality”, though attack origins can be spoofed or simulated.

“There are two separate angles relating to this story. One, perhaps one of the artworks in the auction is either an object of political interest, one of the registered bidders is a target, or someone wants to undermine a bid.”

He also explained that the second factor at play is that auction houses are often targeted by cybercriminals, “as some of the people bidding are very wealthy and accessing their financial details is lucrative for criminals”.

Prof Austin added that some auction houses don’t have high levels of security, which further lures cyber-attackers.  

When asked what he thought the motivations were behind the attack, F.A.B. Chairman Tim Goodman told NITV News: “Someone out there does not want us to succeed”.

He said there are also dealers and auctioneers of Australian Aboriginal Art who may feel threatened by the Cooee Art Marketplace and Fine Art Bourse partnership, but that this won’t dampen their determination.  

“This experience has strengthened our resolve and our determination to continue to disrupt the traditional auction model,” he said.

“Furthermore, we will endeavour to identify those responsible for this malicious act with the assistance of Australian and international law enforcement.”

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