A guide to buying an Australian Aboriginal painting in Sydney. What to look for, what to ask, what to know and what not to do.
Aboriginal art is big business. And there are many unscrupulous middlemen involved.
Here are the simple things you can do to protect yourself against blatant rip-offs. Your actions will also ensure that a decent proportion of the money you pay for the painting goes back to the Aboriginal artist and his or her community.
The very first thing is to educate yourself a little – don’t be an easy mark. Visit the Art Gallery of NSW before you go out shopping for your Aboriginal painting. Get an idea of museum quality and use it as a benchmark.
Aboriginal Art Sale: Your Consumer Rights
Australian consumer law prohibits misleading and deceptive conduct, which includes making false or misleading representations. But you still need to be awake.
You may be shown a photo of an indigenous Australian sitting next to or holding dot art or desert paintings. It doesn’t mean that person actually painted the picture. The painting might have been done by a backpacker for ready cash.
So here are some basic questions to ask when you’re buying Aboriginal art. They have been recommended by the ACCC, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (you’ll hear it referred to as the “A triple C”).
Ask the seller:
- the name of the Aboriginal artist and their language group or homelands
- the title of the painting, and when and where it was created
- the details of any story it tells or other cultural information.
Ask whether the Aboriginal painting, or other artwork you’re looking at, was created by a single artist or as part of a collaboration. If it was a collaborative effort, who were the other artists involved?
Collaborative work as such is not a negative. It plays an important part in allowing artists to pass on important knowledge and Dreamtime stories. What you’re after here is to check that the painting was not an anonymous production line process.
You can learn about customary Aboriginal traditions of work and living in lots of ways. Museums in Sydney have very interesting and informative displays (the Australian Museum is particularly good).
Read the label. ‘Aboriginal style’ or ‘indigenous style’ does not mean that the art work was created by an indigenous Australian.
Does the Sydney seller provide a certificate of authenticity? Although this is not a guarantee it is a written record of what you are told you are buying. It will help establish whether you have been misled if you later dispute your purchase.
Think about the price. Does it seem reasonable for an Aboriginal painting of this size and quality, or by this artist? Remember – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Reputation of the Gallery
Does the Sydney seller have a good reputation either in the art industry generally or in the indigenous art industry?
How can you know?
Start by asking if the Sydney seller is a registered signatory of the Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct.
This code was introduced in August 2010. It is overseen by the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA).
It aims to provide
- fair and ethical trade with indigenous artists
- transparency in the sale of Aboriginal painting
- a fair dispute resolution system
Checking a seller’s reputation is even more important if you’re buying Aboriginal art online.
Is the Sydney seller a member of other reputable industry associations? Such as the
- Australian Indigenous Art Trade Association
- Australian Commercial Galleries Association
- National Association for the Visual Arts
Aboriginal Painting: Exploitation
What will the artist get in return for creating your artwork? Here’s another area where you, the buyer of the painting, can make a difference if you care to.
Brisbane Koori artist Richard Bell writes about artists letting go of paintings at extremely low prices to unscrupulous dealers to resell at exorbitant profits. He takes us through 3 scenarios.
In the first scenario, the Aboriginal artist works through a government-assisted community arts centre.
The centre typically takes a one-third commission on the wholesale price of the Aboriginal painting. It consigns the painting to a galley at an agreed retail price which commonly includes a 40% commission for the gallery.
The wholesale price of the painting might be $600. Of this the community arts centre would take $200 as its one-third share and the artist would receive $400.
The gallery will sell the Aboriginal painting for $1000 thus giving it a 40% commission (on the retail price). This price breakup is considered acceptable, by and large.
The second scenario is when an Aboriginal artist is sufficiently well known he or she can deal directly with galleries. The artist then keeps all of the price obtained for the painting after the gallery’s 40% commission (the artist keeps $600 from a painting that retails for $1000).
Or, even better, the Aboriginal artist is part of a co-operative for the sale of Aboriginal paintings and other artwork. This will be run by and for the artists.
The third scenario is the one you need to watch out for. The gallery or dealer takes its $400. A middleman is paid the $600. He may already have paid, or may have promised to pay, the artist $100 or so for the painting. Or he may pay the artist a low weekly wage which bears no resemblance to the price the painting will bring. It’s clear that the main beneficiary of this scenario is the middleman. The artist is the biggest loser.
The co-operation of dealers, and the alertness of buyers, is essential to overcome such exploitation. Unfortunately it is still not wholly stamped out. So satisfy yourself that you’re not unwittingly supporting these unethical practices when you buy your painting.
Talk to the staff of the Aboriginal art gallery you’re in. What is their business model and relationship with the artists they support. If it’s a reputable gallery they’ll be happy to discuss these topics with you.
And if you have been misled and are in a dispute, try to get the transaction reversed, or at least frozen, by your credit card provider.