Joining the Dots: The Sustainability of the Aboriginal Art Market

8 07 2010

Yes – things have been busy. Very busy. Exhaustion and sleeplessness have kicked in. But no fungus infections as yet, I’m happy to say (note to the repulsed – I’m referencing Roy Lichtenstein at left).

(Image: Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Takka Takka’, via

On top of the symposium I’m co-convening at the University of Melbourne next week, with speeches by the Minister for the Arts, Peter Garrett, 2010 Archibald and Wynne winner Sam Leach, and other venerable members of the visual art community, I’ve also been writing an article, ‘Joining the dots: analysing the sustainability of the Australian Aboriginal art market’, for publication in UNESCO’s humanities journal, Diogenes. Yes, I know. Enough of the self-serving plugs, already. But at the moment I’m so busy I don’t have anything else for you.

So here’s the pre-publication version of the paper, which looks at the sustainability of the Aboriginal art market using empirical evidence drawn from auction figures. My conclusion is that Aboriginal art, rightly or wrongly, is treated by the market as anthropological, rather than fine, art, and that this has implications for the mid- to long-term sustainability of the market. There are charts, tables and everything.

Please note, it’s the pre-publication form, and will be edited and formatted differently when it appears in Diogenes. It’s also a necessarily ponderous academic piece of writing. And long. (I’m a good salesman, aren’t I?) But there are some interesting bits and pieces in there that should be useful. I hope. It’s a formal version of a paper I delivered at the 2009 Art Association of Australia and New Zealand conference, and it attracted a fair bit of interest from a number of luminaries at said event. Then again, perhaps they were just being polite.

Anyways, here it is – the abstract first, to whet your appetite, and the rest of the article after the jump. Please take heed of the requisite copyright notice from Diogenes and Sage Publications. Because this is all original research put together by me and to be published exclusively in their lovely publication. And if you copy any of it and use it without requisite acknowledgment, they’ll have your proverbial guts for garters.


“This paper has been accepted for publication in Diogenes and the final (edited, revised and typeset) version of this paper will be published in Diogenes Vol/Issue, Month/2010 by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © ICPHS. For more information please visit: .”


Joining the dots: analysing the sustainability of the Australian Aboriginal art market


Sotheby’s estimates between fifty and seventy percent of the Aboriginal art it sells at auction is bought by international collectors. How do those buyers view their acquistions? On the Sotheby’s website, you will not find Aboriginal art listed with ‘Australian’ and ‘Contemporary Art’ under the ‘Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture’ department. Rather, it is classified as one of the ‘Ancient and Ethnographic Arts’, alongside ‘Antiquities’ and ‘Pre-Columbian Art’.

This paper will show that the promotion and perception of Aboriginal art as ethnographic rather than contemporary in nature is but one of a number of important aspects of the market that have implications for the industry’s long-term sustainability. This distinction has a significant effect on the way Aboriginal art is distributed, promoted and received by buyers and sellers. Collectors measure the value of ethnographic material by assessing its proximity to a culturally immaculate source. An object has the greatest ethnographic integrity if it emanates from a primitive, isolated community.

Author’s biography:

Dr. Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios is a researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include art price formation and how and why economic superstars emerge in the auction market. Part of her research was the focus of a Four Corners program, Art for Art’s Sake, aired on ABC television. Meaghan co-authored a paper with Professor Neil de Marchi of Duke University for the Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art: ‘The impact of unscrupulous dealers on sustainability in the Australian Aboriginal desert paintings market’. She is a registered art valuer and has seventeen years’ art-industry experience in public and commercial art institutions. Read the rest of this entry »


Outback alchemy: mining royalties to be put to good use in Aboriginal art centres

24 03 2009



It always makes my cynical heart (yes – there’s an ongoing theme here) swell with joy when a politician actually follows through on a promise.

In very welcome news, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, has announced that $A8 million from the Aboriginal Benefits Account (ABA) will be used to upgrade and maintain twenty-nine community art centres. These centres have been responsible for supporting many of the Aboriginal art community’s luminaries. But they have also become important social hubs for the surrounding communities. They’re much more than simply places the artists can paint and sell their work. And, if things go according to plan, the money will be used to improve facilities and establish art education and research programs.

About flipping time, I say. The money in the ABA has been accumulated by the Australian Government since 1997 from mining royalties, purportedly to benefit Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. But in a 2007 report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Jenny Macklin, who was then Opposition spokesman for Indigenous Affairs, pointed out that almost $A 50 million collected between 1997 and 2007 remained in a reserve. The government minister in charge of Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, was clutching those purse strings like Scrooge: “I’m not simply handing out the funds to anyone who wants them. That practice in indigenous affairs is in the past.” Hmm.

The clearly exasperated director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Professor Jon Altman, seemed to think there may have been some very valid reasons for spending the cash then and there: “Do you use it for a rainy day or do you use it to address Aboriginal disadvantage today?” Remember the Northern Territory Intervention, former Minister Brough? Perhaps Professor Altman had a point there.

Me? I’m glad to see that all that cash made from tearing up the outback go towards nourishing the stunning creative output blooming in the desert and on far-flung islands. Seems fitting, somehow.