Consumer focus: How to buy ethically

Making sure you always buy ethically is not just about protecting the buyer’s investment, it’s about respect for the world’s oldest living culture, ensuring the artists are paid fairly and securing a sustainable future for Australia’s Indigenous art industry.

Six strategies for consumers to ensure your purchase supports artists and their communities

  1. Look for members of the Indigenous Art Code

2. Do your research

3. Ask lots of questions

4. Check the documentation

5. Look out for warning signs of unethical practice

6. Use your instincts

1: Look for members of the Indigenous Art Code

Most dealers in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art have high ethical standards and a genuine sense of responsibility to Indigenous artists and their communities. Many are signatories to the Indigenous Art Code and display our logo at their premises and on marketing materials.

Regrettably, however, some people are selling Aboriginal art (and fake Aboriginal art) who respect neither Indigenous culture nor the wellbeing of the artists and their communities. This is why the Indigenous Art Code exists.

 We encourage consumers to look for and purchase from members of the Indigenous Art Code (IartC). Dealer members of the Indigenous Art Code must adhere to and demonstrate a commitment to upholding the ethical standards laid out in the Code. Read the Code here.

A register of all current Indigenous Art Code members is accessible via the IartC homepage.

NOTE: The Indigenous Art Code does not comment on the business practices of non-members.

2: Do your research

We encourage consumers, irrespective of how and where they purchase artwork by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, to ask questions, do their research and inform themselves about the artists and their communities.

– Stephanie Parkin, Chair of the Indigenous Art Code

Before making a purchase, we encourage you to do your own independent online research on the business you plan to purchase from, including how they work with artists and artist and their community and/or art centre whose work you are looking at purchasing.

3: Ask lots of questions

Irrespective of where you buy art, we suggest you ask lots of questions:

Three questions to start with are:

1. Who is the artist?

2. Where is the artist from?

3. How does the artist get paid?

Some other questions to consider:

How did the artwork or product come to be in a gallery or shop/available for purchase?

If it is a reproduction of an artist’s work, how are royalties or licensing fees paid to the artist?

How long has the business been in operation? If it’s suddenly appeared from nowhere, where were they before?

Is your business (the business you’re visiting) a specialist in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art? One or two pieces in amongst other art or souvenirs can sometimes be a warning sign.

Is your gallery (the dealer you are considering buying from) a member of the Indigenous Art Code?  If yes, you know it has agreed to follow the rules and guidelines laid out in the Code.

Ethical galleries and dealers will also be willing and able to answer questions in any of the following areas:

About the artist – their other work, history and community.

About the art centre – where is it? How long has the gallery been working with them? Does this artist always work through this art centre?

How does the gallery source its art generally and how does it pay the artists?

How much of the sale price goes to the artist?

Artists have a right to know the ‘money story’ for their art and buyers can ask too. Most ethical dealers are open about their business models. Many get their work from art centres on ‘consignment’ and pay the art centres a fixed percentage when they sell it. Some dealers pay a fair price to artists up front; this price should be commensurate with what they know the retail price of the work will be.

Some unscrupulous dealers pay artists a small amount for the work up front, sometimes exploiting artists in a vulnerable position. They go on to charge inflated retail prices for the work. While not illegal, the Indigenous Art Code does not consider this ethical practice. In some instances, artists are not given truthful information about the true market value of their work.

4: Check the documentation

Any piece of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art over AUD 250 should come with a certificate of authenticity. If you’re a buyer, insist on it.

Certificates of authenticity are the most widely used and accepted form of documentation used in the Indigenous visual art market. Certificates of Authenticity verify in writing that the artwork for sale is the original work of the artist named. Certificates of authenticity are most often a single page document intended to ensure the integrity of statements about authenticity. Photographs of an artist creating or holding an artwork are not certificates of authenticity.

Request and check the certificate for any work you intend to purchase. Make sure it is on an art centre or official gallery letterhead and that all the details match the artwork itself.

If the artwork source is from one of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owned and governed art centres, the gallery or dealer (if not the art centre) should also provide the buyer with the original documentation from the art centre.

However, certificates can never be absolute guarantees. There are some instances where the artists have been badly treated or unfairly paid and works created under these conditions also have certificates.

The main purpose of Certificates of authenticity is to document provenance and authenticity (the history or chronology of ownership of an artwork and its source). Provenance is not the same as an ethical supply chain. An ethical supply chain relates to each party’s fair treatment and payment along the supply chain. In relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, what is of primary concern is the transparency of the initial transaction between the artist and dealer and whether any power imbalances were exploited in those transactions.

5: Look out for warning signs of unethical operations

There are also some specific things to look out for that can be warning signs of unethical practices:

A collection of works unconnected by theme, region, language or culture.

Merchandise, such as bags, scarves, jewellery and artefacts, that is manufactured overseas and does not attribute an artist. A bone China cup manufactured overseas and licensed fairly to the artist is ethical. A bone China cup manufactured overseas which an Aboriginal artist does not license is not.

Will the gallery ‘do a deal’? Ethical galleries usually work on a fixed price model with a consistent percentage returned to the art centre and artist. Offers of a discount to close the sale can be a cause for concern.

Does the gallery try to prove the provenance of artworks using photos of artists holding the work, rather than official certificates of authenticity?

6: Use your instincts

There is never a 100% guarantee of authenticity or ethical practice so always use your intuition.

If the gallery owner is evasive about an artwork’s provenance or their relationship with the artist, it may be a signal to walk away.

You want to feel confident, excited and proud of any purchase you make.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Indigenous Art Code acknowledges the traditional owners and custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises their continuing connection to the land, sea and community. We pay our respects to them and their cultures; and to their Elders past, present and future