Aboriginal art left hanging as Sydney auction falters

Tue Oct 21, 2008 12:19am EDT
 
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CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - An auction of Aboriginal art fell far short of pre-sale expectations on Monday as the global financial crisis appeared to halt years of rapid growth, although a shield sold for a record A$84,000 ($59,000).

Auction house Sotheby's Australia said the sale of Aboriginal works at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art realized $3.7 million compared to a pre-sale estimate of between $7.6 million and $11 million with a clearance rate of 42 percent.

But there were bright spots with a kidney-shaped shield from north-east Queensland, collected by settler Robert Stewart around the 1870s, selling for $84,000 -- believed to be the highest price paid at auction for an Aboriginal artifact.

Head of Aboriginal art at Sotheby's Australia, Tim Klingender, said this showed interest for historically significant works remained healthy after a boom period for Australian indigenous art.

"Whilst our total fell short of the low estimate, there had been unprecedented growth in recent years and strong international buying reaffirms the demand for important indigenous art," Klingender said in a statement.

He cited the example of a Maori feather box formerly in the Jerome Gould collection that sold for $57,600 against a pre-sale estimate of $15-20,000, with strong competition from overseas collectors.

Other highlights of the sale included the top lot of 11 untitled Pintupi drawings and watercolours which sold for $300,000, at the top of a pre-sale estimated range.

International buyers were responsible for buying more than 30 percent of the works sold, but the weakened interest reflected what is also happening at auctions in London, New York, Hongkong and Singapore as the art market feels the pinch after years of rapid growth.

Australia's indigenous art market has soared in recent years, underpinned by cashed-up mining and commodity investors, with a painting by the late indigenous artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri selling last year for a record $2.4 million.

($1=A$1.42)

(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by David Fox)