An Alice Springs gallery owner held his nerve and transformed the indigenous art market, writes Paul Bibby.
As the bidding for Emily Kame Kngwarreye's Earth's Creation accelerated towards the million-dollar mark at Wednesday night's auction of indigenous art, Tim Jennings felt his heart begin to race.
The Alice Springs gallery owner was up against a handful of other buyers, including an anonymous art entrepreneur whose offers were relayed to Lawson-Menzies's Randwick auction room by phone.
As the price hit $800,000 - passing the previous record for an indigenous artwork set by Rover Thomas's All that Big Rain Coming from Top Side in 2001 - the other buyers fell away, leaving Jennings and his anonymous rival alone in the market.
"I was hoping that someone would pull the line out from the phone," Jennings says, laughing.
"I don't normally get nervous, but I was last night. It felt a bit like I was opening the batting against a fast bowler for my local cricket club, but about 10 times worse.
"I was very apprehensive. I mean, I'm not the kind of guy who has a spare million sitting around. It's easily the biggest purchase I've ever made."
When the hammer finally fell and the 20 per cent buyer's premium was added, the price was a jaw-dropping $1.056 million, a record for a piece of indigenous art.
It was a momentous occasion for Jennings, who plans to take the enormous painting on tour to Japan and then home to Alice Springs, where it will go on permanent display at his Mbantua gallery.
"I think it will get a lot of people through the door," Jennings says. "I certainly hope so."
Lawson-Menzies's expert on indigenous art, Adrian Newstead, describes the sale as a "watershed moment in Australian art".
"The amazing thing about this is that it's not just the highest price paid for a piece of indigenous art, it is the highest price paid ever for any female artist, black or white, in this country," Newstead says.
"I expect indigenous artworks to break the million-dollar mark many times in the coming years, probably even within the next year. Aboriginal art has been undervalued for decades and we are only now realising the immense talent and vision of artists like Emily."
But skyrocketing prices do not guarantee a financial bonanza for indigenous artists. The sale of Earth's Creation has again focused attention on the exploitation of indigenous artists and the vexed issue of whether they should receive royalties from secondary sales of their work.
Over the past 10 months, a Senate inquiry into indigenous visual arts and crafts has heard from dozens of artists and representative bodies who have described unscrupulous conduct within the industry. They have told of dealers paying artists with alcohol, drugs or second-hand cars, and have called for a transparent system in which artists would benefit from the soaring commercial value of their work.
Among the bodies calling for significant legal changes to protect indigenous artists was the National Association for the Visual Arts. The association's executive director, Tamara Winikoff, says Australia is in "serious need of an effective system of resale royalties".
"Everybody in this industry is happy that indigenous art is selling for such high prices, but there are major problems when the enormous increases in value don't translate into benefits for the artist or the communities they have come from," Winikoff says.
"Our indigenous artists are held in extremely high esteem around the world, and yet they are earning next to nothing in their own country.
"Emily Kngwarreye's work has just broken thorough the $1 million barrier, but not one of her descendants will see a penny from that sale. The people who stand to profit are the dealers."
It is not known how much Kngwarreye was paid for Earth's Creation when she completed the painting in 1996 after months of backbreaking work on the sandy earth of Alhalkere, 230 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs.
Newstead says she was commissioned to paint the four-panel masterpiece by her nephew Fred Torres for the Dacou gallery in South Australia.
"You have to look at the time it was painted and what it would have been offered for sale at the time - the wider context," says Newstead, who has dismissed calls for a resale royalty, arguing that private buyers have the right to reap the full rewards of such high-risk investments.
"In Emily's case it was a family affair. Fred had just started his business at the time and he paid his aunty for the painting and supported a large number of the extended family with the money he made from his art."
Jennings, who worked with Kngwarreye for more than a decade before her death, believes the artist would not have been overly impressed by the price paid for her painting.
"I don't think she'd say a single word," Jennings says.
"She'd probably just wander around the auction house and wonder what she was doing there. She was a very strong woman, a real leader among her people. Her culture was her life."TEMPERATURES RISING
The top 10 prices for indigenous art sold in Australia: Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Earth's Creation, $1,056,000 in 2007.
Rover Thomas, All that Big Rain Coming from Top Side, $778,750 in 2001.
Rover Thomas, Bugaltji, Lissadell Country, $660,000 in 2006.
Johnny Warangkula, Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, $486,500 in 2000.
Rover Thomas, Lake Gregory (Buragu) in the Wet Season, $474,500 in 2003.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Spring Celebration, $463,000 in 2003.
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Emu Corroboree Man, $411,750 in 2005.
Lin Onus, Water Lillies and Evening Reflections, Dingo Springs, $396,000 in 2006.
Rover Thomas, Wurlangawarrin - Salt Pan, $394,000 in 2002.
Rover Thomas, Yillimbiddi Country, $376,750 in 2003.