Continuing allegations of fraud in the increasingly lucrative aboriginal art market in Australia have forced a government investigation into the issue that divides top auction houses like Sotheby's and lesser-known galleries.
The idea of a parliamentary inquiry, that will also endeavor to educate buyers on where to buy aboriginal art, has been met with relief by art lovers who say that the fakery in an exciting, relatively new, industry is about to spiral out of control.
Once a $750,000 business in 1971, aboriginal art is now reputed to bring in at least $149 million. But many well-known aboriginal artists continue to live in third world conditions in remote communities, sometimes paid with a crate of beer or a used four-wheel drive, while their representatives are seen driving brand new Rolls Royces in downtown Sydney.
"Most aboriginal artists live in dire poverty and the only income comes from selling paintings. This opens the door for opportunism," says Chris Hodges, a prominent dealer who runs Utopia Art Sydney.
In response to the problem, the Australian government recently said it would spend an extra $2.2 million over the next three years. The funds would be earmarked for educating artists about their rights and teaching buyers the finer points of caveat emptor.
Artist associations are calling for government regulation as well. John Oster, the executive officer of Desart, an aboriginal-art advocacy group, wrote recently in The Australian that various groups are working on an industry code of conduct that could become a "building block for further regulatory measures."
Stories have circulated about fraud and exploitation of artists for almost as long as there was a buck to be made in aboriginal art. The issue has come to the fore again this year with reports from the town of Alice Springs of artists being physically coerced into producing art and working in sweatshop conditions. Investigations have revealed little. It is alleged that artists are intimidated or bought off by cash, drugs, or alcohol. Meanwhile, some well-known artists have been accused of passing off work by relatives as their own.
Sotheby's will not touch an aboriginal artwork unless it comes from an approved aboriginal art cooperative with a certificate of authenticity. (Aboriginal artists do not sign their work.) Other galleries, however, are trying to move away from what they see as an elitist hold on the aboriginal art world and are attempting to buy directly from the artists. This forges an atmosphere of suspicion.
"The art market is a construct run by people who are elitist and believe that aboriginal art can only be bought from them and seek to disparage everyone else as déclassé," says Adrian Newstead, head of aboriginal art at the Lawson-Menzies auction house. "There is violent debate at present between the elite auction houses and elite galleries and others who want to work with the artists outside that system who are labeled as carpetbaggers."
Mr. Newstead recalls situations where an artist will offer a painting for half its worth simply because he has run out of gas in the middle of the desert and needs money urgently.
"They will ring up and simply ask for petrol money and they don't care that they might be ripped off in the bargain," he says.
Tim Klingender who was responsible for bringing aboriginal work into Sotheby's regular auctions, is virulently opposed to those dealers who try to work on the edges of the system. "Carpetbaggers who hang around the fringes of the art centers are [a scourge]," he charges, "and you can never get any evidence about the fraud because they are happy to pay off those who perpetuate the fraud."
But Mr. Klingender is enthusiastic about the future of the market. He says that more than 50 percent of aboriginal-art sold by Sotheby's now goes to overseas buyers. The June 23 opening of the Musée du Quai Branley in Paris will include a 27,000 square-foot space with aboriginal art.
"As of now, there are just a handful of museums carrying aboriginal art, but that's going to change in the next decade, just as when I went to university in Melbourne, there were no courses you could take on the art, but now there are hundreds of books and lots of courses," he says.