The 2021 Art Market Report – D’Lan Davidson

EMILY KAME KNGWARREYE circa 1910-1996 | Untitled – Alhalkere 1994 | synthetic polymer paint on canvas | bears Rodney Gooch consecutive cat. nos. 1-594; 2-594; 3-594; 4-594; 5-594; 6-594; 7-594; 8-594 verso | 116 x 43.5 cm (8 panels – 116 x 348 cm overall). Sold by D’Lan Contemporary for AU $950,000.

With all that has happened, it feels like an eternity since we last discussed the market and its performance, but incredibly, it has only been 6 months.

Within this report, I will look back over the last 12 months, analyse results, and further discuss the macro-elements – the internal decision-making processes and dynamics that have helped lead and shape the market (both good and bad) to provide a collective level of support to the sustainable position that this market finds itself in today.

This isn’t rocket science, so let’s get stuck in and dissect the performances of the two main drivers in this space:

·      Auctions

·      Private Sales


Although this is beginning to sound like a broken record, looking back on the year that has been, and at auction results alone, one would be forgiven in thinking this market segment has taken a small step backwards.

But when we consider all market segments, nothing could be further from the truth.

According to Australian Art Sales Digest the total auction sales for works by Australia’s First Nations artists in 2020 was a credible $12,539,000. In 2021, reported auction results were just short of that at $11,637,000.

Let’s look at this in detail.

First, let’s take note of the local auction houses that play a role, namely Deutscher and Hackett, Bonhams, Cooee Auctions and, more recently, Leonard Joel.

After dropping their stand-alone First Nations art auctions in 2018 and 2019, and then only picking the segment back up in 2020, the first cab off the rank was Deutscher and Hackett with their ‘Important Australian Aboriginal Art’ auction in March 2021.

And the external results were impressive – 93% by volume and 131% by value, reflecting a total of $2,656,677 including buyer’s premium. When combined with their two online auctions, their total sales were $3,282,217.

This is quite a turn-around from previous years.

These percentage values are what auctions ‘bandy about’ as draw cards for future consignments – high value percentages combined with high volume rates are an auctioneer’s marketing dream.

When viewed from a purely external perspective, it says that the house sold nearly all of what they consigned, and for over the estimate – which is part of the auctioneer’s strategy to keep estimates low and increase these percentages…

More on that in a later post.

In a maturing market, however, I would argue that there is now a realisation that estimates do not reflect true market value. More appropriately, estimates are simply a guide as to the price for which the vendor is willing to let an artwork go, as the auction model, now moves back to a more traditional wholesale market setting.

When further analysing the D+H results, one result stands above them all Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s masterwork Anooralya – Wild Yam 1989.

EMILY KAME KNGWARREYE circa 1910-1996 | Anooralya – Wild Yam 1989 | synthetic polymer paint on linen | 150 x 121 cm | SOLD by D+H for AU $429,545.

When the work appeared in the catalogue, my jaw literally dropped. I remember standing in front of the painting at their Commercial Road premises and realising what a true treasure it was. This work outshone all others on offer and the result was reflective of the quality, exceptional provenance, and moreover, the artist’s grace.

And so, when I was dramatically outbid at auction, and the picture sold for $429,525 against its pre-sale estimate of $150,000-250,000, I was not only thrilled for the artist and her legacy, but genuinely relieved at the same time.

The painting achieved the price it deserved. And with that, it became immediately apparent that Australia’s First Nations auction segment was well and truly alive and kicking again.

As previously mentioned, with all major auction houses in Australia moving away from conducting standalone Australian First Nations auctions in 2018 and 2019, the opportunity and emergence of Cooee Auctions was unsurprising.

And subsequently, after taking a couple of years in hibernation, with the re-emergence of Deutscher and Hackett’s stand-alone First Nations auctions in 2020, it is also unsurprising that this year’s Cooee Art Auctions totalled $1,543,173 nearly half its auction results on the previous year, when it achieved $3 million.

Interesting to note.

Analysing the results, and again placing them within the context of the now significantly more mature and educated market, competition not only plays a huge part in the distribution of market share – quality and assured provenance are key to providing market sustenance.

Auction houses should take note.

Bonham’s also continues to progress with their ‘Important Australian Art’ sales which combine both Indigenous and non-Indigenous works into the one segment. They offer sporadic high-quality offerings which importantly, through Francesca’s experience at Sotheby’s, are always backed by impeccable provenance.

But when two well resolved works by one of the founding kings of Australian First Nations art – Mick Namarari – appeared with ludicrously low pre-sale estimates, I snapped them both up for an important overseas client and myself – Mulpingya 1997 selling for $19,860 (against estimates of $4-6k) and Muruntji 1996 selling for $24,600 (against a pre-sale estimate of $3-5k).

The latter work was presented unstretched and only rolled out to view for anyone who expressed interest. Fortunately, they did.

After a couple years in hiatus, Sotheby’s New York announced a return of auctions in this segment. This sounded a direct warning and ‘shot across the bow’ to all local auction houses to pick up their game – or risk losing further market share.

It will only take one or two auction houses within Australia to truly stick up their hand and be counted. Who will it be?

Private Sales

From all reports in the private sphere – both primary and secondary – the market has never been stronger, which can be attributed to several factors; the now rising primary front, the growing secondary market, and none less important than the worldwide political shift in post-colonial sentiment.

Later, I will detail why this shift is so significant, and what it means to this most critical marketplace.

Firstly though, it was incredibly pleasing to see co-signatories to NEIVA – Paul Johnstone and Matt Ward do so well in their collective SALON Art Projects enterprise helping drive primary sales during Darwin Art Fair this year. Faced with all adversity – the brunt of the Covid -19 policy upon them, and an equally over-loaded exhibition programme, it was such a great sight to behold, albeit remotely from our locked-down living rooms in Melbourne!

As several of the ‘old-guard’ primary gallerists start to wind down, what was most impressive was seeing a greatly revitalised younger generation of gallerists step up. Of particular note was the triumphant Buku collaboration – Murrŋiny – curated by Paul and Matt with an old friend, Petrit Abazi at NCCA, Darwin.

The exhibition was a triumph in creative force which should be primarily attributed to the strength in the work and the working community. It sent a seismic shift through the market nationwide – which I certainly felt.

We wish them every continued success.

Let’s hope this force translates internationally when Kluge-Ruhe presents Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Painting from Yirrkala.

Other news of note was the aforementioned announcement by Tim Klingender of his ‘on again off again’ annual auction with Sotheby’s in New York. These sales always prove to be an impetus and driver for the broader market and private market activities – so let’s also hope both parties can lock in this important calendar event annually.

One of those activities benefiting from the collective international fanfare, clearly, is Tim’s recent move away from protectively ‘flying under the radar’ and openly sharing an email with an important announcement on a private transaction:

EMILY KAME KNGWARREYE circa 1910-1996 | Anooralya Awelye 1996 | acrylic on canvas | 151 x 90 cm. Sold as one of a group of 10 paintings by Tim Klingender Fine Art, price UNDISCLOSED.

Early this year we [Tim Klingender Fine Art] were entrusted by Dutch collector Thomas Vroom with the consignment of 10 major paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye for private treaty sale, and we are delighted to announce that this important group of paintings have been repatriated and sold to an Australian private art collection. With Emily Kngwarreye’s international trajectory in full flight and her prices escalating, it was pleasing to see an Australian collection step up and acquire this astounding body of work. 

The sharing of important industry news such as this can only help instil confidence in the broader marketplace and encourage future growth which the industry as a whole will benefit from.

This is the reason why we have no problem doing exactly that.

At the beginning of 2021, we [D’Lan Contemporary] chose to utilise this year primarily as a building year to help sustain future anticipated growth by opening our gallery at 40 Exhibition Street. This aligned with our inaugural non-selling exhibition Minyintiri: Life in Layered Time which was compiled predominantly from two lending private collections.

The philosophy and drive behind the decision to exhibit an artist that had had very little exposure to the secondary market, was exactly that – to help give an important artist during life, the exposure he quite rightly deserved – his first solo exhibition – albeit after his death.

The exhibition was a direct cost to our company, but we deemed it a future investment, not only into an artist that we believe in, but also into our intent to progress into an area we feel passionate about – Estate representation (whether the Estate holds asset or not).

And the longer-term response has been phenomenal.

I relate this investment as being the catalyst for future single-artist consignments – Paddy Bedford being just one. As you will soon see, 2022 will be packed with similar solo survey exhibitions – slated for both here and abroad.

Minyintiri: Life in Layered Time was followed by our major annual exhibition Significant which was held at a time that I felt significant downward force from the tiresome effects of the pandemic and ongoing lockdowns. But instead of allowing that to weigh on the market, I felt it important to challenge the market. To stand firm.

And it worked, the market rallied with a total of 22 works selling for $2,882,000. This success, much like the success in Darwin, can be attributed to one thing only: the quality of the work on offer.

We remain focussed on representing the finest quality artworks combined with a more disciplined approach to provenance.

As we soon realised there were a lot of people that missed out and/or couldn’t get a look in, we followed this exhibition with Reverence, which is usually slated annually for Sydney. And in the midst of yet another Victorian lockdown, our investment into our online viewing-room platform proving to be insightful. All but three works sold, achieving a total of $985,400.

PADDY BEDFORD, Jack Flood 2004, natural earth pigments and synthetic binder on linen, 150 X 180 cm. Sold by D’Lan Contemporary in association with William Mora as part of the final realise of the Paddy Bedford Estate which achieved AU $2,973,000 in total sales.

Aligned with our recent Gallery expansion at 40 Exhibition Street, we then joined forces with William Mora to present Paddy Bedford: I AM THE LAW which, as widely reported, was also a near sell-out, accruing a total of $2,937,000 in sales.

Neither William nor myself anticipated such a strong result.

Intertwined with these incredible exhibition results have been several notable Private Treaty transactions. We sold a significant work by Emily Kame Kngwarreye – slated for the forthcoming retrospective – for $950,000. The second highest price on record was achieved for Makinti Napanangka, and the yet-to-be announced sale of Tommy Lowry’s masterwork Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya is pending… so stay tuned.


Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) was the first political economist to produce essays on Art as an economic asset. He stated that there was no greater mechanism to redistribute wealth than the Art market. And, he argued that by giving everyone freedom to produce and exchange goods as they pleased (free trade) and opening up markets to domestic and foreign competition, people’s natural self-interest would promote greater prosperity than with stringent government regulations.

I could not agree more – particularly in this industry.

And in a recent round-table Government discussion to do exactly that – help create international opportunity in this Indigenously led industry, Franchesca Cubillo mentioned that after 60 years [or more] of ingenuity and production by our leading First Nations artists, it is imperative that our First Nations people should be benefitting from that production – both past and present.

Again, I could not agree more.

I believe our commitment to this sentiment, by contributing 30% of our net profit into NEIVA – to further support wider working communities – is what is driving our success. And if embraced more broadly by the industry, in one way shape or form, it has the potential to drive significant wealth creation – where it is not only needed, but well and truly deserved.

This market is generated by over 60 years of First Nations artistic, productive, hard work.

The numbers don’t lie. Our results are in. And our firm commitment in giving back to working communities through royalties and NEIVA will be met. And I could not feel more fulfilled in doing so.

– D’Lan Davidson