Sotheby’s Aboriginal art specialist, Tim Klingender, has been protesting for years at the impact the Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act has on the sale of important Aboriginal art and, in 2001, he had a public row with then Arts Minister Peter McGauran who dismissed his criticisms and said Sotheby’s had a clear self-interest in arguing against export restrictions because it affected the firm’s bottom line.

“It has repeatedly opposed the government’s decisions but has yet to successfully appeal against them,” McGauran said.

The Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act ensures that items of cultural significance to Australians can be retained in this country for future generations.”

Klingender rightly claims that Sotheby’s has helped raise the profile of Aboriginal art by promoting its sales around the world. Each year he has taken a selection of works from forthcoming auctions to America and shown them in New York while previews have also been held in London, Los Angeles and Paris.

The interest generated, Klingender argues, plus the consequent high prices, have a trickle down effect that ultimately boosts the sales and incomes of indigenous artists.

He said the act covers a large number of the works in tonight’s Aboriginal art sale whose prices will also be affected by the lack of an export licence. But then Sotheby’s has been selling more than half of the paintings, by value, in its specialist Aboriginal art auctions to overseas collectors for years and many major works have been taken out of Australia, probably never to be seen again.

Two years ago, the firm sold two other important paintings by Clifford Possum to overseas collectors. The National Gallery of Australia had hoped to buy Emu Corroboree Man as it was the first painting the artist produced.

The gallery lost out when furious bidding pushed the price to a new record of $411,750 for a Clifford Possum. Melbourne art dealer Irene Sutton bought the small work for $411,750 on behalf of an American collector.

The painting was originally purchased from Clifford Possum by a naturalist from Arizona in 1972 for less than $100. As it was brought back from America for the sale, it was not covered by the Heritage Act.

The second Clifford Possum, another huge painting more than 4.5 metres long and titled Man’s Love Story, was bought by a French collector also for $411,750. Because it was painted towards the end of the artist’s career in 1993-94, it also fell outside the act.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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