Aboriginal art industry grows up - and faces fraud

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri shuffles toward a bench and sits, surveying the scene, his one good eye narrowed against the morning brightness. His clothes are dirty. His hair is tangled. He looks very weary.

If he were anywhere but the art gallery courtyard he is sitting in, he'd look like any other elderly, homeless - or virtually homeless - man eking out a day-by-day living. But Clifford Possum, as he's best known in the art world, is a star.

Over the years, he has been feted by art cognoscenti all over the world and has had exhibitions at major museums in Europe and the United States. During his audience at Buckingham Palace, he insists it was Queen Elizabeth who kissed his hand rather than vice versa. "Like this," he says, bowing his head, demonstrating the royal peck.

That was more than a decade ago though, and now controversy is drawing attention to Clifford Possum. Widely considered one of Australia's greatest Aboriginal painters, Mr. Tjapaltjarri now stands at the center of a forgery scandal in connection with which an art dealer will go on trial in the coming weeks.

It is a scandal that has shaken the increasingly lucrative Aboriginal art industry; a recent study estimated its worth at $200 million Australian ($128 million US) a year. But it has also exposed the dark side of a modern business dealing in traditions dating back 40,000 years.

"I'm really angry," Clifford Possum says. "That's his [the accused dealer's] own dreaming. He shouldn't copy mine."

Clifford Possum was part of a group of artists who in the early 1970s began transferring ceremonial sand paintings mapping spiritual stories, or dreamings - passed down through the generations - onto canvases, creating a new pointillist art movement.

"His early paintings are paintings of genius," says Christopher Hodges, a Sydney art dealer who began his career selling works by Clifford Possum, among others. "He made remarkable steps forward."

But in recent years the artist - who lives virtually homeless in Alice Springs and struggles, those around him say, with both drinking and gambling problems - has slowly become a symbol of much of what is wrong with the industry. The recent scandal has made things even worse, some in the business argue, and turned him into a tragic figure with a much bigger profile.

Rumors of fakes have long existed along Todd Mall, the commercial strip in the desert community of Alice Springs, where much of the Aboriginal art in circulation first meets the commercial world. Clifford Possum has over the years been the subject of many of those rumors.

But a can of worms was opened a year ago when he fingered two dozen fakes in a Sydney gallery and several others in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, one of Australia's most illustrious museums. Since the news first hit the Australian papers, two other major artists have also become embroiled in the scandal.

First came Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, who said in an affidavit that he had signed works he did not paint before retracting his statement and then retracting the retraction, leaving everyone confused. Then there was Ginger Riley, who last December called works attributed to him at a Melbourne gallery fakes, before admitting he had painted them and fingered them as forgeries to protect his "exclusive" relationship with another gallery.

As both those cases illustrate, what should be a simple question of authenticity can get very complicated very quickly when it comes to Aboriginal art.

On the face of it, the case against John O'Loughlin, the dealer scheduled to go on trial for fraud in relation to Clifford Possum's work, is a clear one.

He is charged with fraud for allegedly knowingly selling Clifford Possum fakes to another dealer, who went on to consign them to a Sydney gallery. It was there that Clifford Possum, with the help of an Alice Springs dealer he is close to, Michael Hollow, identified the fakes and the police were called in.

But there is evidence that in the past Clifford Possum himself sold fakes of his own work.

Mr. Hollow produced a painting from his Alice Springs storeroom that he bought from the artist years ago and that, he says, he has no doubt was painted by someone else. "If I don't get it off the street, it will end up in some gallery selling as a Clifford Possum," the dealer says.

There are also reportedly paintings done by family members that Clifford Possum has signed so that they will fetch more when they are sold, a practice not limited to Possum in an Aboriginal society that puts family ties above all else.

The picture gets even more complicated as a result of the hand-to-mouth existence even top Aboriginal artists often live. Despite the thousands of dollars they are frequently paid for works, most Aboriginal artists still live simple lives, quickly giving away most of the money to family members or hangers-on.

Desperate for cash, Clifford Possum has been known to sell unfinished works to tourists on the street here or paint for some of the backyard operators working in Alice Springs who lure artists to paint by promising them alcohol and food.

The reason for what experts say is a growing incidence of forgeries in the Aboriginal art world in recent years is clear. "You're talking about a big industry out there right now, and there's a lot of money to be made," says Tim Klingender, an Aboriginal art expert at Sotheby's.

For that very reason, the bottom end of Australia's indigenous art market has had its own authenticity problems. For example didgeridoos, uniquely Aboriginal instruments that produce a buzzing sound, and boomerangs are sold to tourists eager for mementos of their time in Australia. There have been reports of backpackers painting didgeridoos, and of other souvenirs with Aboriginal motifs being manufactured in Taiwan.

The recent scandals have prompted some moves to clean up the industry. A trade association for galleries selling Aboriginal art was recently founded around a set of strict ethical guidelines. Another industry group has unveiled an authenticity label for works by Aboriginal artists.

But experts say the market also appears to have weathered the recent scandals relatively well. Hollow says he now has difficulty selling Clifford Possum's works, but other gallery owners say their major problem is increasing competition, not customers worried about forgeries.

In the end, it seems there is still a growing demand for works by the best practitioners of what to outsiders can seem like a strangely mystical art form, and a uniquely Australian one.

An exhibit of Aboriginal art is now being displayed at the legendary Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the prices paid at auction for many works continue to rise.

"The very best of the art can still hold its own in any company," says Mr. Klingender. "It is genuinely great art."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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