Art Market Report 2023

EMILY KAM KNGWARRAY, Alhalkere - My Country
EMILY KAM KNGWARRAY | Alhalkere – My Country 1992 | Sold by Private Treaty to the National Gallery of Australia by D’Lan Contemporary

As the art market powers into 2024, this is an important time to pause and reflect on what the industry taught us in 2023.

This dynamic segment of the market is now ready to enter its next stage. Previously held back by the local ‘old guard’ – who are often resistant to change and in some cases, prepared to compromise their own policies and processes to stay ahead – the industry is now evolving, technologically and politically. Remaining agile and moving assertively with the ‘market flow’ is, as always, the key to success and progression.

It’s time to look to the future – which is looking unquestionably bright for the art of our brightest First Nations artists, both past and present.

So, let’s assess what occurred in 2023:

I would like to begin by acknowledging the foundational work of our late colleague, Tim Klingender, and all he achieved for this market. The international industry was left reeling by the announcement of his untimely passing in July. It certainly put a lot of things back into perspective…

Countered by a fast-paced statement from Bonhams announcing New York auctions of ‘Aboriginal Art’ in June – highlighting an opportunity waiting to be seized – Sotheby’s New York confirmed they would continue Tim’s great work by scheduling their own auction of ‘Aboriginal Art’ in May. So, international competition is now strong.

I know only too well the huge industry weight that Tim carried but, even with this very significant loss, I am confident that market momentum will remain strong – due, in no small part, to Tim’s relentless work during his lifetime.

According to AASD, auctions of Australian Indigenous art surprisingly only recorded a total of AUD$12.601million in 2023 compared to AUD$16.105million last year. But from my unique perspective, 2023 saw a return of viability in the auction model – both in Australia and in New York.

Let me explain why.

There were only five stand-alone Australian Indigenous auctions this year:

  • Sotheby’s New York: AUD$4,505,822 (inc. BP) May 2023
  • Deutscher + Hackett, Melbourne: AUD $3,262,950 (inc. BP) March 2023
  • Cooee Auctions, Sydney: AUD$2,211,116 (inc. BP) November 2023
  • Leonard Joel, Melbourne: AUD$755,080 (inc. BP) August and November 2023

The two main auction drivers remain Deutscher + Hackett and Sotheby’s New York.

However, with Adrian Newstead now taking a step back and ‘handing over the keys’ to Mirri Leven at Cooee Art Leven, it will be interesting to observe their new business model – and in particular to see if they will implement a stricter provenance policy with Mirri at the helm.

In my opinion, that would be a positive step for the industry on every level. Leonard Joel has, for example, seen an uplift in activity since introducing a stricter and more ethical provenance policy.

I was asked recently whether or not I was concerned about this uplift in auction activity, but I am always of the firm opinion that ‘rising tides raise all ships’.

Auctions play a vital role – clearly. And competition is healthy for the market.

Deutscher + Hackett kicked off the year with an emphatic exclamation mark. Their auction realised AUD$3,262,950 which represented a 91% sold by volume and a 168% sold by value rate.

I have always argued that auction estimates are becoming more and more irrelevant  – designed to generate high clearance rates and not individual results. These figures are categorical proof that this is the case. However, in saying that, the overall result should provide a huge boost to market confidence, and with that, provide auction specialists with the confidence to trend upwards with their estimates – in alignment with the actual market.

Several notable results achieved were AUD$251,591 for Sally Gabori’s Ninjilki 2008 (against a pre-sale estimate of $60,000-80,000), AUD$153,409 for Nonggirrnga Marawili’s Baratjala 2018 (against a pre-sale estimate of $40,000-60,000) and strong results for several works by Emily Kam Kngwarray – which now seem like past tense.

This auction was followed by the highly anticipated Sotheby’s New York auction which achieved a very commendable AUD$4,505,822 (inc. BP). This represented a sale rate of only 66% by volume but, critically, these artworks sold for an impressive 111% by value. The estimates were quite bullish compared to Australian standards, but they demonstrate the buying power in the contemporary overseas market.


Of all the tremendous results achieved at Sotheby’s, Johnny Warangkula was the superstar,with Water and Bush Tucker Story 1972 selling for an incredible USD$762,000. Bidding on behalf of a prominent US client, we were the underbidder on this fabulous picture – which my client often reminds me of, as ‘the one that got away’.


Finally, it is worth mentioning the white glove auction of The Estate of Rod Menzies at Cooee Art which achieved a 100% sold by volume and a 129% sold by value rate when compared to the pre-auction low-end estimate.


So, it is fair to say that auctions are back… at last!

Above: JOHNNY WARANGKULA TJUPURRULA | Water and Bush Tucker Story 1972 | Sold for USD$762,000, Sotheby’s New York.

With a dramatic shift in acknowledgment internationally, this industry has made an irrefutable turn-around.

Since word got out that the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) would partner with Tate Modern, London to stage an important retrospective of Emily Kam Kngwarray’s work in 2025 – following on from their own, current major retrospective – the market for Emily’s work has strengthened by the day. With further whispers of an American iteration of this most critical First Nations exhibit to date, it is clear where the excitement and market enthusiasm is being generated from.

Curators Hetti Perkins and Kelli Cole should be commended for their intensive work with community – to help bring the artist’s sinuous songlines together – and with it, building cultural bridges at the same time. I have learned a lot through this exhibition.

It’s far more than a group of pretty pictures.

Above: Emily Kam Kngwarray Installation View, NGA | Image: Jed Cooper


But with incredible success, there often comes detractors – the fact that the NGA chose to align with linguist Jennifer Green in the respelling of Emily’s name caused a commotion amongst some dealers and institutions. Our gallery chose to follow the lead of the NGA and the efforts of their community consultation.

However, putting all differences aside – as we all know – Emily will always be EMILY.

The tireless work of Nicki Cumpston’s Tarnathi with the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) and Margo Neale’s internationally travelling exhibition, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) remain huge market swayers and deserve annual applaud.

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has stepped up in a big way also. The soon to be announced ‘embargoed’ exhibition in North America is sure to generate further huge waves within the broader industry. I simply can’t wait for that monumental announcement!

Finally, Melbourne University will compile a survey exhibition of Australian First Nations Art curated by Professor Marcia Langton AO, Judith Ryan AM and Shanysa McConville in 2025. 65,000 Years: A Short History of Australian Art will be the inaugural exhibition at the revitalised Ian Potter Museum of Art, from 14 February – 23 August 2025.

2023 was a huge year for us, with the opening of our space in New York, several new projects which involved working directly with community, and participating in Frieze Masters London.


It’s hard to believe all of this happened in just one year.


Above: EMILY KAM KNGWARRAY: Everything at Frieze Masters 2023 | Image: Dan Weill



The opening of our permanent space in New York in May followed several years of strategic planning and growth in Australia and overseas.


I’m pleased to share that our space on 81st Street has already enabled us to engage and work with respected and like-minded gallerists, collectors, and communities to further foster appreciation for and awareness of Australian First Nations art.


And, following on from our prior work with Gagosian, we look forward announcing another significant collaboration as part of our forthcoming 2024 exhibition schedule in Melbourne and New York.

The Spinifex Arts Project celebrated the release of the monumental publication Sun & Shadow: Art of the Spinifex People in 2023. Edited by John Carty and Luke Scholes, the publication beautifully details and honours the unique contribution of the Spinifex people to Australian art history.


To mark the release of this publication and the extraordinary and continuing success of this art movement, D’Lan Contemporary staged two exhibitions dedicated to the art of the Spinifex people; NEW WORKS FROM THE SPINIFEX ARTS PROJECT in New York (which went on, in part, to be exhibited at Sydney Contemporary) and SPINIFEX COUNTRY in Melbourne.


We are delighted to announce that our first exhibition of 2024 will be presented in association with Wik & Kugu Arts Centre, Aurukun.


We will share more on this exciting exhibition soon and will continue – in 2024 and beyond – to highlight the work of living community artists and their practice via our primary market presence in New York and in Melbourne – to help to nurture careers and sustain the longevity of a robust market.


It was a privilege to present the work of Emily Kam Kngwarray to a global Art Fair audience for the first time at Frieze Masters 2023 – and to be the first Australian gallery to participate in this prestigious Fair.


Emily’s work was embraced and celebrated by collectors from all over the world, and we were thrilled to sell eight of her works for just over USD $2.7 million.


This change in sentiment, combined with the renewed and welcome confidence generated at auction, is what’s helping drive this market.


Muna - Everything


Above: EMILY KAM KNGWARRAY | Muna – Everything 1991 | Sold to an undisclosed Institution in the United States by D’Lan Contemporary

We are committed to generating positive change and encouraging others to do so, so that – collectively – we can all move away from the antiquated ‘old guard’ and create a more inclusive industry, ready to evolve and progress both here and abroad.


Our Top Ten Works sold this past calendar year is not a list of works that merely ‘look fabulous above the sofa’. Sales are progressing strongly at an institutional level because there is a genuine interest – and therefore need for institutions to fill a void – in this previously overlooked but critically important segment of the contemporary art market.


Emily is at the forefront of that international market oversight. This is one of the reasons I am determined to reposition this market internationally.


Over the past year, D’Lan Contemporary Melbourne recorded sales figures of AUD$17,583,217 in Australia and USD$3,437,007 in New York – what’s incredible is that the US sales have been achieved only since May 2023.


This has provided us with the confidence to employ a full-time Gallery Manager in New York – who we will introduce later this month – to work alongside Lauren Hawker, who manages Special Events & Client Relations.


And, although we were met with significant industry obstruction when we first announced the Voluntary Resale Royalty initiative and the giving back of 30% of our net profits to community, we believe in the reciprocal power of good-will.


I stand steadfast in the belief that our continued success is driven by and is testament to that.


Further, I am pleased to report that through our profit-sharing and voluntary initiatives – combined with the legislated Copyright and Resale Royalty schemes – we have shared AUD $332,143 with community in this past financial year alone.


Profit Sharing + Charitable Contributions FY 2023:

Copyright Fees: $34,368.18

Donations: $13,100.00

Community Contributions: $130,492.97

Resale Royalty Fees (voluntary and mandatory combined): $154,182.15 


These newly reported results and our newly increased profitability, combined with our contributions to this industry – and more importantly, our contributions back to community – will continue to sustainably grow.


In an industry worth a reported AUD$250 million and growing, just imagine what could be achieved if this profit-sharing methodology became industry standard. 


And the way I see it, this is not generated by us, but from the practice of Indigenous artists and their communities. If we think about those conditions – and anyone who has worked in those communities will attest that they are the toughest of conditions – and the hardships that the Indigenous people of Australia have had to face against a world that has never listened… our hurdles cannot even compare.


So, this report – and our industry – is not, and should not just be about the market or the money. Nor is it merely about possession. This is about taking direct action by fostering true shared cultural values to generate community respect – by circling back from one culture to another, and in turn, creating a two-way street.


Thank you to Emily, and all of the artists of this great movement, for helping teach me that.


I, and the entire team at D’Lan Contemporary, thank you – our clients, colleagues, and friends – for your ongoing support in 2023 and as we look forward now to 2024, we wish you a healthy and prosperous year ahead, and invite you to stay tuned…