A guide to purchasing Aboriginal art, ethically

Buying Aboriginal art[1], can be an overwhelming experience often exacerbated by stories of bad practice and unethical treatment of artists. How do you know that the work of art you are considering has been ethically made and distributed? How do you know who made it, what it means and if the artist was paid a fair and equitable amount?

Firstly, it helps to understand who is selling the artwork. It will either be an art centre, an individual (consultant/dealer/freelance) or a gallery. These groups have different aims and objectives.

Art centres are Aboriginal-owned and managed businesses that operate with the specific aim to produce and distribute ethically created Indigenous art. They also provide opportunities, training and career development for practising Aboriginal artists and arts workers. Art Centres act as agents between artists and galleries/museums/institutions. Most art centres sell directly to the public but they are more often than not in remote locations and so they work alongside reputable galleries, in urban areas, who are better placed to sell and promote the artwork.

Galleries promote, support and distribute artwork to wider audiences through exhibitions, networking, press and sales. Galleries often choose the artwork they want for exhibitions, or they will work in partnership with art centres.  Often the art centres will reserve their best work for these shows. Through their expertise and experience, galleries promote the artist to build their career. Commonly, galleries are consigned artworks from art centres for sale.

Consultants and dealers work in the same way as galleries but do not necessarily have an exhibition space nor do they necessarily get artwork on consignment from art centres. Often they develop their own relationships with artists, not through art centres. Consults and galleries alike both have the capability to trade unethically, which I will explain in the coming paragraphs.

Once you have an idea about who you are buying from, here are some simple guidelines for making an informed choice in buying Aboriginal artwork.

  1. Research!
    Speak to a range of people in the industry but most importantly, from whom you are considering buying. Don’t be shy in asking them many questions. You seek to ascertain if they pay the artist the correct value of their work (are they undercutting the artist and making a large profit?), what are the artists working conditions like and was it made by the artist they say it is made by. If the person is reluctant to share information with you, that might be a warning. Try to gauge their knowledge of the artwork/artist/art centre/community. This question serves as an indication of how connected they are to the artist/community or art centre and may make you feel at ease knowing that people are not taken advantage of.

Feel free to ask what cut does the artist get, what does the art centre get, and what does the gallery/dealer get. Most art centres make a little less than what the artist makes from a sale, for example, a 60/40 split is common. Galleries will put another percentage on top of this price (generally the gallery takes a 40% commission and 60% of the price goes back to the art centre). Nonetheless, galleries and individuals selling artworks can put as much of a mark up as they think they can get for a work.

Be wary if there are large discounts on the art.  As a rule of thumb the price of the artwork is dictated to the gallery by the art centre, ensuring that works by one artist are the same wherever they are sold, but this does not always happen. So it is unusual if you are offered a big discount (such as 30, 40 or even 80% off). This will either mean that the work has been previously priced way above it’s market value to accommodate the discount or that the artist has not been paid properly for the work in the first instance.

 

  1. Can they provide a certificate of authenticity?

Certificates of authenticity are made by Art Centres and accompany works of art to prove its authenticity and its origin (provenance). The certificate will have the art centres details on it—NOT the gallery/consultant— as well as the artists' details and the artwork details. Different art centres certificates look different, however they all have the same information on them:

Name of Artist

Information about the artist, such as language group, place of birth, skin name.

Picture of the artwork and in some cases the artist

Title of painting

Size of the art work – make sure it matches the artwork

Catalogue number  - this is an important code that links the artwork back to the artist, art centres and the date it was produces

Story – This will vary in length and detail from art centre to art centre and often vary from Artist to artist depending on what has been painted

Before Art Centres were established, certificates of authenticity were less common and other forms of proof served as provenance. If you are purchasing an artwork on the secondary market, ensure that you still get some form of provenance.

3.  Beware of forgeries!

Aboriginal artists are often exploited by either their work being forged by Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people. Or by falsifying authentication documents, or more covertly, exploiting the socio-economic poverty of artists. This occurs when artists need money fast and so sell their work for cheaper than what it is worth on the market in order to get money quicker.

Individuals who make an unfair profit on top of sales are called carpet-baggers. They undercut artists because they pay less for works than what the market dictates. They can also distribute forgeries or works that have been acquired unethically. They are not accountable to an organisation or body that ensures best practice (for example the Indigenous art code or Australian Commercial Galleries Association) and are often known in the sector for unscrupulous dealing, so ask around.

This type of operation devalues the artist, their work and those who work to build and support an artist's career.

Buying artworks that have been unethically sourced or made undermines the artist and the industry. Galleries, dealers, consultants and art centres go to great efforts to develop and support artists' by entering them in prizes, organising exhibitions, writing and researching about the work and its place in the artists' oeuvre.

A gallery or individual that handles itself ethically will have no hesitation answering these questions.

Please note, art centres, who are at the heart of ensuring best practice and pay conditions for the artists do not have works on ebay or at auction houses, so be very mindful of buying art from these sources!

For more information on purchasing Aboriginal art, ANKAAA (the peak advocacy and support agency for Aboriginal artists working individually and through 48 remote Art Centres) have a good guide:

http://ankaaa.org.au/publication/purchasing-aboriginal-art-ethical-buying-guide/

Or please give me a call on 0450929183 or drop me a line: nichola@aboriginalcontemporary.com.au

Warmest  Nichola

 [1] These tips relate to artwork made from remote communities in Australia - that is, communities remote to capital cities.