About Collecting Investment Aboriginal Art


Design Sydney-East, 2007

Steps to follow to acquire Australian Aboriginal Art


Someday you may find yourself standing in front a painting you really like, but with a considerable price tag attached. You may also be wondering whether the asking price is an accurate measure of the painting’s true present value. So, how exactly does the price for a work of art originate and how do you make sure your purchase price corresponds to true market price?


The best way to approach a potential art purchase is identical to the way you would approach any other kind of substantial investment: do your homework first. Being well prepared will give you a much greater comfort level when investigating the incredibly dynamic market of Australian Aboriginal art.


Australian Aboriginal art’s importance and value are now firmly established in today’s art market and Aboriginal artists today are commanding and receiving prices for works considered “investment level” by galleries around the world, by major auction houses, and in art centers promoting specific art communities in Australia. But this is a relatively-recent phenomena. While Aboriginal artists have effectively been producing their art for tens of thousands of years, ramped-up valuations have only emerged during the last 30 or so years with the growing awareness by non-indigenous people of Australian Aboriginal art’s uniqueness and beauty.


Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's epochal painting, Warlugulong, is a good example of how much pricing valuations have soared with respect to  Australian Aboriginal art during the past four decades. Clifford's iconic work was first sold to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 1977 for a mere $1,200.00 AUD. The painting tells the "Dreaming" story of Lungkata, the blue-tongued lizard man who started a great ancestral bush fire at Warlugulong to punish his two sons who had killed and devoured a sacred kangaroo. The two boys are pursued around the country by their father's all-consuming fire and are eventually destroyed at a place near Yuendumu.



Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Warlugulong 1977

synthetic polymer paint on canvas,

220 x 385 cm


The valuation of Warlugulong at the time of its initial purchase was approximately $13.00 per square foot. Thirty years later, the painting sold at auction to the National Gallery of Australia for 2.4 million dollars; an increase in valuation of approximately $26,000.00 per square foot!


While Warlugulong's price increase is among the most dramatic in Australian Aboriginal art, valuations of paintings by many other Australian Aboriginal artists are now routinely positioned in the four, five, and six figure price ranges. So, if you decide to move into the Aboriginal art market, you owe it to yourself to become your own expert guide. Hopefully, some of the tips below will help chart your way.


Find a price point you are comfortable with


This is really the first step. Because of its emerging nature, beautiful and important works by Aboriginal artists can be found in prices ranging from a few hundred to more than two million dollars.


Find an artist you like


That might seem like a simple statement, but there are many fascinating Aboriginal artists producing work at art centers and for galleries throughout Australia today, so there’s a tendency to become overwhelmed by the number of choices you are presented with. Try to pick one, two, or three artists you really like in a price range you are comfortable with and start learning about them!


Do the Research


  • The Internet


The rapid valuation increase in Aboriginal art over the past thirty years has attracted profiteers and others whose unethical business practices work against the best interests of the Aboriginal artists and their communities. Unethical and, in some instances, illegal market practices are best avoided by educating yourself about Aboriginal art.


My recommendation for the best place to start your research is on the Internet. Begin by searching the artist’s name, along with a few “key” words (i.e., artist’s name + “Aboriginal” + “art”).


  • Organizations/Art Centers


Also, many of today’s finest and most exciting Aboriginal artists are affiliated with art centers across Australia. Two quality organizations, ANKAAA and DESART, represent many of these art communities and have direct links to them. I encourage you to visit these centers on-line to become familiar with the multitude of different styles represented in painting, sculpture, glass, ceramics, fabric, etc.


  • Blogs


One of the finest Aboriginal art blogs available today is Will Owen’s “Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye”. Will died December 2, 2015, but his invaluable blog remains available and you can spend days traveling through Aboriginal culture and art using this insightful and entertaining blog as your guide. Will also compiled a comprehensive Selected Bibliography on Aboriginal Art during his tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We wish to acknowledge UNC's Librarian, Elaine Westbrooks, for her kind research in making Will's terrific bibliography once again available to the public.


  • Museums


Our region is lucky to have one of the finest cultural jewels of Aboriginal art situated in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, the Kluge-Ruhe Museum. Less than two hours from Washington, D.C., Kluge-Ruhe possesses one of the most dynamic gatherings of Aboriginal art and research in the world. Its collection of art objects and scholarship was originally assembled by John W. Kluge and Edward L. Ruhe and subsequently donated to the University of Virginia. Kluge-Ruhe’s vast reservoir of art and learning is a “must visit” for anyone interested in learning about Australian Aboriginal art.


The museum is run by three world-renowned Aboriginal art scholars, Margo Smith, Kluge-Ruhe’s Director, Henry Skerritt, the museum’s Curator of the Indigenous Art of Australia, and Nicole Wade, the Collections' Manager and Registrar. These scholars of Australian Aboriginal art are invaluable and highly-accessible resources. Also, take advantage of signing up for Kluge-Ruhe's excellent newsletter and events notification, which you can do on-line at Kluge-Ruhe’s web site.


  • Reference Books & Catalogs


If you are planning on purchasing/collecting Australian Aboriginal Art you should consider a good general reference book to have available in your home. I would recommend the Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, which is a wide-ranging reference book covering the history of Australian Aboriginal art, styles, artists, politics, etc. Again, also check out Will Owen’s Bibliography of Aboriginal books at the web site provided above for a great list of other important books.


  • Newspapers


The National Indigenous Times covers all news relating to Australian Aboriginal peoples across the continent.  The Australian is a premier Australian newspaper that can be accessed on the Internet. The Australian covers not just Aboriginal art but everything connected with Australia and Aboriginal affairs.


  • Other Resources


Museum and auction catalogs are also good resources for finding out about artists that might be of interest to you. For example, Menzies Art Brands provides many of its catalogs on-line with available price results.


Validating Valuation


The most difficult aspect connected with collecting contemporary Australian Aboriginal art is determining appropriate current market price for works you are considering. Is a work over-priced, or under-priced, or is it actually priced “correctly”?


Artists’ abilities wax and wane, brilliant works can emerge only to be followed by marginal efforts. Once-cultivated movements and styles can become discredited or unpopular. How is one to ever deduce the “true” value of a work at a particular point in time?


The first thing to recognize is that there are an unlimited number of intangibles that factor into the pricing of a work of art (availability, quality, stretching, freight/mailing, etc), but these intangibles shouldn’t prevent you from following some simple steps that will ensure an informed and considered purchase offer.


Assuming you’ve followed the first three steps above (identified an artist you like, found a painting you are interested in, and done the necessary homework), it’s time to ask the Gallery director or sales team to explain to you how they arrived at the pricing for the piece of art you are considering. You, hopefully, will already have some sense of the valuation of other pieces for sale by your artist but if not, the seller may have sales-related data or on-line recommendations for establishing valuations relating to a particular artist.


Ask the seller if there is a return policy for works and what it covers. Some Galleries operate on a “final sale” basis, others have time-limited full return policies, still others have time-limited return policies with restocking fees. Just be clear BEFORE you purchase a work what options are available to you in connection with after-purchase returns.


Purchase What You Love


The final and most important piece of advice is buy work only if you truly find it enchanting and capable of providing you continuous pleasure. Make sure you have a “perfect” place for your new work and consider framing and lighting options to bring out its true beauty.