Know your source: Buying Aboriginal art ethically

Published in Art Edit, Issue 2, Apr-Jun 2014

The next time you fall in love with a piece of Aboriginal art, before you reach for your credit card take the time to ask whether the artist who made the work was treated fairly. We walk you through what you need to know about buying Aboriginal art ethically.

When Aboriginal art began to boom in the late 1980s and 1990s, the smell of money attracted all sorts of players. Sadly not all the work bought and hung on art lovers’ walls during this time resulted in a fair price being paid to the artist. Other unethical practices also came to light, such as the removal of artists from their communities, which was done with the aim of quickly securing a large volume of artwork for sale and not always with the full consent of artists and their families.

The situation raised complex ethical issues about buying and owning Aboriginal art. How can you trace the work’s source? And how do you know if the artist has been dealt with respectfully in the commercial exchanges around the sale of their artwork?

While there’s no doubt the situation has improved, some of these concerns still linger and it is essential that buyers of Aboriginal art take responsibility and ask questions – these issues will only be consigned to history when art buyers make it clear there is no market for unethically sourced Aboriginal art.

So how can you know whether artwork you want to buy has been ethically sourced? The most direct method is to travel to one of the many Aboriginal owned, community run art centres in remote communities around Australia and buy art directly. Visiting art centres is also a fantastic opportunity to see artists at work and see the country their work might be about, but obviously the distances involved mean it’s not something we can all do on a regular basis. If you are interested in making a trip, pick up a copy of Art Collector magazine’s Guide to Indigenous Art Centres which lists the centres and has details about visitor’s permits you might need to organise before you travel.

These art centres are not-for-profit cooperatives where all the money received from the sale of artworks goes back to the artists and their community. They are self-organised, usually by a board of senior artists and community members. Alongside coordinating the interaction between the community’s artists and the art market, these centres give young artists a venue to develop and hone their skills and learn culture from more senior artists. Art centres play a hugely important role both within their communities and in the Aboriginal art world at large.

Art centres usually have relationships with commercial galleries who exhibit and sell work from the centre’s artists. Many art centres list their commercial gallery partnerships on their website or of course you can call and ask. (Bear in mind that artworks can find their way into other galleries, such as when the owner of an artwork resells it. Seeing an artwork on a gallery’s website doesn’t automatically mean that the art centre has a trusting and good working relationship with that gallery.)

Many of these galleries are also signatories to the Indigenous Art Code, a code of conduct setting out standards of ethical practice for dealing Aboriginal art. It is a reasonable assurance of ethical behaviour because the signatories have agreed to deal fairly with artists but as the code is still relatively new it’s still worth asking questions about the exact nature of its transactions with artists.

Going through community run, Aboriginal owned art centres is not the only way to feel confident you’re buying ethically. There aren’t art centres in every region of Australia, for one. But when an artist is working outside the art centre model, there is more research that needs to be done by the buyer.

Asking the dealer about how the work was sourced, and how much the artist was paid, is the first step. As a comparison, city galleries usually take a 40 per cent commission on artwork sales they make, with the remainder going to the artist. In kind payments, where the artist receives goods such as a second-hand car, should be considered extremely carefully – it is almost impossible to verify the actual worth of the transaction without having seen the goods or had them valued, or without talking to the artist about the appropriateness of a non-cash payment.

If the gallery is not a signatory to the Indigenous Art Code, why not?

And is the work being sold with a certificate of authenticity? But be careful not to confuse provenance with a good ethical report card. For sales of new work, discussions about an artwork’s provenance usually relate to authenticity of authorship, that is, whether it can be proved who made the artwork. This is important, for example, to prove the work wasn’t made in a factory in China, however it’s also possible for a work to have “good provenance” but still have been sourced via unethical means. For works made earlier, checking the provenance will also give you information about where the work has been previously exhibited or sold. If there is any cloud over how the artwork first made it to market, there is very little chance it will ever appreciate in value over time.

It should be a red flag if a dealer is defensive or won’t answer your questions. Speaking generally, dealers are usually extremely happy to talk to prospective clients about how they discovered their artists and how they go about getting the work or putting together an exhibition.

And a final word. Because asking questions is so important, it is extremely risky buying Aboriginal art through non-traditional channels like eBay.

What questions should I ask before I buy?
Where did the gallery source the artwork from?
Does the artwork originally come from an Aboriginal owned art centre?
Is the gallery or artist a signatory to the Indigenous Art Code?
How is the artist paid?
What percentage of the sale goes to the artist?
Is the artwork made in Australia?

What is the Indigenous Art Code?
The Indigenous Art Code was established in 2009 as a step towards addressing unethical practices in the Aboriginal art market. It is a voluntary code that sets out standards for commercial galleries dealing Aboriginal art and provides greater certainty for buyers. At this early stage the code is largely about setting benchmarks and intentions for ethical practice so while it is a good starting point for buyers it is still important to ask questions about how artworks have been sourced. A list of registered member galleries and
artists is available on the Indigenous Art Code website.

Learn more
The peak bodies representing Aboriginal artists and community art centres have developed some fantastic resources for buyers of Aboriginal art, particularly the consumer guide published by the Association of Northern Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists.
Aboriginal Art Centre Hub of Western Australia
Ananguku Arts
Association of Northern Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists
UMI Arts
Western Desert Mob

What is carpetbagging?
Carpetbaggers got their name after the American civil war when Northerners carrying carpet bags moved to the South to take advantage of the post-war instability and turn a quick buck by ripping off locals. These days it has a more specific meaning in relation to Australian Aboriginal art. It is a pejorative term for anyone who purchases Aboriginal art from artists in remote communities at a fraction of its market worth and then sells it in other markets like the big cities for greatly increased prices – the artist, who
may not have other means of assessing the value of his or her work, is taken advantage of.