News that the National Gallery of Australia bought Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s huge painting Warlugulong for $2.4 million has delighted Hank Ebes, the Melbourne Aboriginal art dealer who put the work up for auction – and not only because he collects a tidy $2 million.

For the past decade, Ebes has been deploring the fact that many of Australia’s most important indigenous art works have been going into private collections or sold to overseas buyers.

“These pictures show the beginnings of an art movement that will become famous across the globe. They are the Renoirs and van Goghs of Australia and we are allowing them to leave the country without recognising their importance,” he said at a Sotheby’s sale in 1998.

That was at a time when millionaire art lovers in America, Britain and Europe had become entranced by the truly original quality of Australia’s indigenous art; a great many now hang on the walls of homes and galleries in foreign places.

And even though the Protection of Moveable Cultural Heritage Act meant the Clifford Possum would not be allowed to leave Australia, it was curious to see Ebes place his own top Aboriginal painting in the Sotheby’s auction where it set a startling new record price for an Aboriginal art work, more than doubling the previous highest sum.

Ebes had treasured the picture and kept it on his living room wall for the past 11 years. It was, he says, an indulgence given that it was instrumental to the Aboriginal art movement, to the memory and status of Clifford Possum – “Australia’s foremost artist and the first painting he produced entirely by himself”.

“I hung on to it till now knowing it could not get an export permit to leave Australia even though an American collector once offered me $2 million for it,” he says.

“Had I not bought it in 1996 [for $39,600 at a Leonard Joel sale in Melbourne], it would have gone overseas and never been seen in Australia again. I offered it later to one of the state public galleries but was told I’d have no say over whether it would be hung or not, forget about where or how prominently. At that point I was so devastated I told them to go forth and multiply.”

As Ebes says, Warlugulong is twice as large as the New South Wales Art Gallery’s most important Clifford Possum – also named Warlugulong. “It represents the record of the creation, the entire Fire Dreaming by one of best and best-known original artists without any influence of any other civilisation on earth and has a 35,000-year pedigree”.

He finally decided to sell the picture because the lease on his Aboriginal Dreaming gallery in Melbourne’s Bourke Street expires shortly after 18 years and he would have to continue outlaying $300,000 year to sell paintings he now intends to put up for auction. Ebes says the salerooms have taken over from the commercial galleries because they can more effectively market works on a national and international scale.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey