The National Gallery of Australia last night paid $2.4 million for Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s huge painting Warlugulong at a Sotheby’s auction in Melbourne. The gallery initially refused to comment but later told Crikey it had acquired the 1977 work which has been rated as one of the artist’s greatest paintings.

NGA director Ron Radford is known to have wanted to buy the painting and has a lot of money to play with at present, splashing out on buying top-quality pictures as well as establishing a series of rooms to display Aboriginal art from the various regions across Australia. Having Kerry Packer’s wife Ros on his acquisition committee is no doubt a boon as she wouldn’t miss the odd million dollars or two should she have decided to help purchase the Clifford Possum.

In an NGA release today, Radford said the painting would be a key work for the main Central Desert room in the gallery’s new wing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art – to start construction next month. Although the gallery has the largest collection of Aboriginal art in Australia, it lacked a major work by Clifford Possum.

The NGA’s last major purchase of an Aboriginal art work at auction was also at Sotheby’s in 2001 when it bought a large 1991 Rover Thomas — All that big rain coming from topside – and set a new record for a work by an indigenous artist. In a dramatic telephone duel, the gallery outbid two American collectors and spent $778,500 to buy the painting.

The price was a 60% hike on the previous record set the year before when a painting by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula sold for $486,500. Yet only two years earlier, the same picture had established the record after an American collector paid $200,500 for it. So in less than a decade, the top prices for Aboriginal art at auction have increased more than tenfold.

The main reason is that millionaire art lovers in America, Britain and Europe have become entranced by the truly original quality of Australia’s indigenous art and have been behind most of the purchases of top-quality pictures. Overseas art-lovers realise that nowhere else on Earth are artists producing works that are so distinctive, that bear no relationship to any existing or previous western art form – which is why so many now hang on the walls of homes and galleries in foreign places.

While the Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act has stopped the sale to overseas collectors of Aboriginal paintings more than 20 years old and worth more than $10,000, it has also deterred them from bidding. That probably explains why the Clifford Possum did not reach the heights it might otherwise have done last night and allowed the NGA’s bid to succeed.

Sotheby’s is now boasting that the firm “made Aboriginal art history with the most successful Aboriginal auction ever held”. The sale generated a turnover of $8.2 million and exceeded the previous top auction total of $6.9 million set four years ago. As well as the Clifford Possum, records were also set for more than 20 individual artists – none whom will actually get anything from the auction.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey