'Medecine Story' (1971) by Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra from the Wilkerson Collection

Jeremy Eccles | 22.04.12

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: ABC Radio

The ABC Radio National's Books and Arts program raised some curly issues on Friday regarding the export of Aboriginal art by international collectors. Taking part was the feisty John Wilkerson, a belated entry into the American pantheon of collectors - Ruhe and Kluge, Kalton and Kaplan. In 2009, the Wilkersons – John and Barbara – toured their collection around American university galleries under the title Icons of the Desert, and stumbled into the minefield of interpreting the early Papunya boards that form the core of their collection with a catalogue that offered two and occasionally three meanings – all derived from non-Indigenous transcriptions of the artists' own early explanations.

One of those works on tour was Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri's 1984 masterwork, Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya. 120 by 180 centimetres large, it had been bought for $440,000 by the Wilkersons at Sotheby's July 2007 sale – the pre-GFC event when the still-record price of $2.4m was paid for Clifford Possum's Warlugulong by the National Gallery. But the Lowry is only seen in America under licence – which runs out at the end of this year. For the National Cultural Heritage Committee has declared it too important a work to leave Australia permanently.

Since Two Men Draming.... was selected for two of the defining shows of Aboriginal art – Dreamings in New York in 1988 and the AGNSW's Genesis and Genius in 2000, one might argue that its importance is self-evident. But Wilkerson pointed out on the radio that not a single art institution in Australia bid against him for the work in 2007, so how could its importance today be justified? In fact, he went on to say that the whole process of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act of 1986 was so cumbersome and opaque that it was “strangling the international market for Aboriginal art; who would even start a collection under these regulations”, he demanded?

In response, the Chair of the NCH Committee, Dr Patrick Green from the Melbourne Museum was quoted as saying that 87% of applications for the export of Aboriginal art were accepted. But his colleague, Philip Batty – on the program – was prepared to admit that since the process of decision-taking only started after an artwork had been bought by an overseas collector and the advice to the Committee came fairly slowly from anonymous, busy volunteer experts such as himself, there was room for improvement.

Wilkerson went on to complain that no one on the NCH Committee itself had any commercial experience in the Indigenous artworld. An examination of the current committee membership reveals that only one has even got any aesthetic experience of this world on a body heavy with museum ethnographers – and that's the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair's Avril Quail. The category called “Four persons with relevant experience” seems to cry out for a senior dealer or curator to add their voice to discussions.

John Wilkerson also raised valid questions about what happens to his Tommy Lowry when it's returned to Australia; and about the discrimination built into the Act whereby non-Indigenous works for export are assessed at 30 or more years old and $250,000 in value while Indigenous works have only to be 10 years old and worth $10,000? No wonder 87% of applications are approved. It seems most unlikely that any gallery apart from the National would consider matching the Wilkerson price for his Lowry – as happens regularly with such works banned for export in the UK or France. But the NCH Committee only has half a million dollars in toto in its comparable fund here.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the end of this year. Meanwhile, the whole discussion is available at:


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