10 Questions with a Specialist

Recently at a Leonard Joel auction Sophie Ullin, our Aboriginal & Tribal Art specialist, managed the sale of five tribal items with a combined estimate of $10,500 for $63,000 (IBP). In this interview Sophie discusses the fine art of the estimate , how to price unique tribal artefacts and why tribal art is so collectable.

1. After the auction of these five items, a collector commented that we achieved international quality prices. What does this say about the market in Australia for such objects?
That the desire for quality, rarity and objects of cultural significance is universal. The digital age has eradicated geographical borders for collecting and the tribal market is truly international.

2. With such conservative estimates, the obvious question is “if you’d priced the items collectively at, say $40,000 – $60,000, would they have sold?

There was not much precedent for these objects, particularly the Aboriginal pieces. So I set the low estimate close to the highest auction price achieved for a transitional object, which acknowledged their exceptional quality and simultaneously would harness the auction mechanisms and potential of encouraging competitive bidding to allow the objects to find their current market.

3. What is different about valuing tribal works of art for auction?

While aesthetics play a role in both fine art and tribal art, the identity of the creator is usually unknown for artefacts. Therefore period and date become major determinants of value along with anthropological aspects, as well as the cultural context /significance and ceremonial purposes of an object.

4 How significant is provenance and the history of a piece when it comes to tribal artefacts?
The pedigree of an artefact cetainly has a clear ability to elevate it above its unprovenanced counterparts, thereby increasing its collectabality and value exponentially /accordingly. An object once belonging to a prominent collector, say Norman Rockefeller, by default maintains a strong link to and embodies the context and weight of the once complete Rockefeller collection. A different kind, but no less relevant, imprimatur is invoked by a single, identifiable provenance – the PNG pigment bowls and dance ornament in our March sale carried the provenance of Capt Edgar Johnston and were important not due to notions of fame, but his presence in the region on the cusp of foreign involvement, underscored by his key task of surveying the country for landing strips. This project facilitated the opening up of PNG to the wider world and inevitably led to significant cultural changes, whereby objects such as carved pigment bowls of such quality ceased to be made.

5. How did most non-14Australian artefacts find their way to our shores?
Variously. Using PNG as an example of trade between Papua New Guinean and Aboriginal peoples; from the 1960s “Missionary” galleries in major cities that sourced artefacts directly from the field and within the local community they were serving; commercial galleries and dealers exporting to Australia and ex-pats and Australian citizens bringing the objects with them following time living or travelling abroad.

6. What indigenous artefacts cannot be traded and why?
Objects that are encoded with very sacred and secret information. For example Aboriginal stone and wooden tjuringas are highly culturally sensitive objects that should not be handled by unititiated males and furthermore should not be viewed by women. They carry sacred songs, stories and ceremonies and the spirit of the ancestors (who are thought to have made the tjuringas) and are considered to possess powerful magical properties.

7. If one were looking to collect tribal artefacts at this point in time where would you recommend that they look?
Leonard Joel of course! Casting the net wider, I would recommend specialist dealers and other auction rooms offering tribal art. Educating oneself through museums, discussions with tribal specialists, attending auctions and exhibitions and exposure to relevant literature is always an advisable strategy.

8. Does tribal art experience the same sort of nation-centric collecting that say art does? For example, Australian art tends to be solely collected by Australians.
No, tribal collectors have a very international outlook. They cross all borders in the search for special artefacts. Some of the most ardent collectors of Aboriginal artefacts come from Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States.

9. When did people begin collecting tribal artefacts and art?
Throughout the millenium – it is an age-old compulsion! Whenever a race or country explored new territories or invaded foreign lands their artefacts and art were pillaged and acquired – just think back to the Romans.

10. And separately, when did it begin to be traded as a collecting category?
As a collecting category of note, it began around the mid 19th century as explorers and missionaries infiltrated and mapped Australia’s interior. Likewise, at the same time, but beyond our shores, it gained popularity as Europeans and Americans embarked on the “Grand Tour”. Tribal art collecting grew in tandem with the pursuit of leisure, travel and exploration…essentially as our curiousity and exposure to other cultures manifested itself.

Image Details
with strong red pigment, mid 20th century.
Washkuk Hills, Papua New Guinea.
Yam ceremony. 123cm (height)
Sold for $1,680 (IBP)