The Arnaud Serval Collection at the Drouot Montaigne 9th May 2011
Billed as the largest auction sale of Aboriginal art ever offered in the northern hemisphere this Art Contemporain Aborigène d’Australie catalogue, is essentially a single vendor sale put together by Paris based Indigenous and tribal art specialist Luc Berthier for the up and coming auction house Cornette de Saint Cyr.
It comprises 124 lots valued at €502,000 to €642,800 ($AUD680, 200 to $871,000) drawn from the extensive collection (reputedly composed of more than 2000 canvas paintings, barks, sculptures and sacred objects) of Swiss collector and art entrepreneur Arnaud Serval.
From the age of 19 Serval was the quintessential European adventurer driven by the desire to seek out the Aborigines after becoming enthralled with their myths and legends. The son of a well-known Paris art dealer, Serval began visiting Australia in the early 1990’s and purchased the majority of the artworks in his collection directly from the artists he spent time with in the field. For more than a decade he lived for several months each year in the central and western deserts and in the Kimberley region. During this time he purchased works directly from Clifford Possum, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Barney Campbell, Timmy Payungka, Billy Stockman, Gloria Petyarre, and other influential western desert artists, as well as Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie. Amongst the works in this 124 lot sale 48 were purchased directly from the artists. However there are many purchased from art centres including 13 form Warlayirti Artists at Balgo Hills, 10 from Papunya Tula, 9 from Maningrida, 10 from Buku Larrngay Mulka at Yirrkala and others from the art centres in Warmun, Elcho Island, Ramingining, Utopia and Fitzroy Crossing.
The items in this selection for auction at the Drouot-Montaigne on the 9th May 2011 are varied but contain few of the vast storehouse of masterpieces Serval accumulated over two decades. His personal collection is reputed to contain rare barks and boards, a large sound and vision archive, unpublished documents and a definitive reference library. Apart from his passion for collecting in the field, Serval was a prodigious buyer at auction yet only 4 works purchased at Sotheby’s and one at Deutscher~Menzies appear in a sale overwhelmingly comprised of low value items.
The catalogue is lavishly illustrated and extremely well documented-far more so than would be the case with a sale of this value in Australia.
However the vendor is wealthy and this sale should be seen as the first step in a strategy designed to build collector interest in Europe. In this regard Serval and his expert Luc Berthier are visionaries. Pierre Cornette de Saint Cyr is committed to building the secondary market for Aboriginal art in Europe and with Serval’s voluminous collection to draw upon other major collectors will surely follow.
Cornette de Saint Cyr, and his specialist Berthier, have weighted this sale just about perfectly given the results of Paris Aboriginal art auctions over the past 3 years. Fifty six percent of the value is in 26 lots (21% of volume). This leaves plenty of good quality items at reasonable prices for first time collectors who will be attracted to purchasing from a European sale in preference to Australia, given the bullish Aussie dollar. Eleven lots (9%) of items are estimated below €1000 while 68% fall between €1000 and €5000. Twenty lots are estimated at between €5000 and €10,000 with only 9 lots above, the highest being the cover lot by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (Lot 11) and a work by Emily Kngwarreye (lot 29) both of which are offered at €30,000 to €40,000.
Of those artists with whom Serval had the strongest personal links only Ronnie Tjampitjinpa is well represented in the sale. His major Tingari Dreaming, which adorns the cover of the catalogue, is an impressive and reasonably priced large work (239 x 178 cm). Of the others the standout is a delicately coloured Tingari Dreaming (Lot 9) estimated at €7000 to €9000. The same could not be said of the three works by Clifford Possum. Given Serval’s substantial holdings by this artist these pieces are unremarkable. And, surprisingly not one single work by Rover Thomas appears in the sale. Yet the major work by Billy Stockman (Lot 80) is one of the finest examples I have ever seen.
Emily Kngwarreye’s My Country 1993, is a delightful, large, and colourful piece (Lot 29). It is a fine example of the artist’s transition from cosmic cloud-like imagery to the line-work she developed during the second half of her short 7-year career. The work was purchased directly from the artist’s niece Barbara Weir, the mother of Fred Torres, owner of Dacou Gallery. It is one of only two works are valued at more than €30,000.
The sale includes a number of bark paintings and hollow logs from Arnhem Land. By far the most impressive of these are the two sculptures by Gulumbu Yunupingu, while two bark paintings by this artist are superb and very reasonably priced. There are, in fact, many delightful small barks in the sale. Another standout is a lovely small work by Nanyin Maymura (1918-1969) (Lot 57) which carries wonderful provenance and is estimated at just €700 to €900. It was illustrated in the touring catalogue of the 1974-1976 landmark exhibition Art of Aboriginal Australia, the earliest Australia Council touring exhibition to Canada, sponsored by Rothman’s of Pall Mall.
Other works worthy of mention are Queenie McKenzie’s, Table Top, 1995 (Lot 64), a very fine piece that is well worth the pre-sale estimate of €15 000 to €20 000: an interesting small work by Denis Nelson Tjakamarra (Lot 74), the much under-appreciated son of Papunya founder Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula; and a lovely 122 x 122 cm work by Brandy Tjungurayai carrying Papunya Tula provenance and valued at only €3500 to €4500.
With a dearth of touring exhibitions in Europe and North America since the GFC, the birth of an international secondary market for Aboriginal art is the most significant contemporary development in the promotion of the movement. For this reason alone, industry insiders will be observing the results carefully. Concurrent with this sale, Arnaud Serval launched Carry OnIArt Aborigène, an exhibition space on the shores of Lake Geneva to permanently display works from his collection. Its opening exhibition Tingari & Mimi took place on the 12th of April 2011 and was attended by influential European collectors and dealers, as well as Melbourne gallerist William Mora, who has been living in Paris since Christmas.
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MICK NAMARARI TJAPALTJARRI (C.1926-1998) - Dingo Dreaming, 1997 - Acrylic on linen canvas - 150x212c