How to buy ethically
Jennifer Wurrkidj Kunronj (Freashwater story). Image: Ingrid Johanson Babbarra Designs
Why buying ethically is important
In many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, art sales are the main source of income. Making sure you always buy ethically and authentically is not just about protecting the buyer’s investment, it’s about respect for the world’s oldest living culture, ensuring the artists and those around them are paid fairly and securing a sustainable future for Australia’s Indigenous art industry.
Tjunkaya Tapaya from Ernabella (SA). Marlu (Kangaroo). 2016. Photo by Rhett Hammerton. © Tjanpi Desert Weavers, NPY Women’s Council.
Whether you’re buying from an art centre, a gallery, a dealer, an auction or an art fair, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. If you’re not satisfied with the answers, ask more.
Three key questions every buyer should consider:
1. Who is the artist?
2. Where is the artist from?
3. How does the artist get paid?
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. We encourage all buyers to look for it whenever and wherever they buy Indigenous art.
Regrettably, however, there are some people 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.
Provenance ‘A record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.’
Artist to art buyer: a unique relationship
In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, provenance is crucial. The origin and history of ownership of a piece of Aboriginal art is both its birth certificate and passport; providing confidence of authenticity and evidence of ethical practices along the value chain.
The remote locations of many artists and art centres compound historical, political and social forces that have created a situation where the relationship between artist and buyer is fundamentally unequal. A moral compass and commitment to ethical trade by both buyers and sellers is the ‘finger on the scales’ that balance this inequity.
If buying Aboriginal art is stripped of these values, the relationship between artist and buyer is merely a financial transaction, devoid of connections to the artist’s heritage and cultural universe – for many, the very things that attracted them to Aboriginal art in the first place. An immutable reciprocity must connect the buyer’s and the artist’s interests to create an exchange that is both conscious and conscientious.
‘Doing the right thing’ also matters for legal and financial reasons. Unethical dealers often breach the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, taxation laws, Fair Trade and Code of Conduct regulations; legislation written and enforced to protect buyers and sellers of all goods and services. Turning a blind eye to unethical practices can make buyers complicit in breaking the law.
Yamaji Art at the Revealed Market Place Fremantle Art Centre. Image: Tim Acker
Example of a Code-compliant certificate courtesy Papunya Tjupi Arts
Buying from art centres
Any piece of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art over A$250 that is bought from an art centre (or gallery that sources art from art centres) will come with an official art centre authentication certificate. If you’re a buyer, insist on it.
Under the Resale Royalty Scheme and Indigenous Art Code of Conduct these certificates provide buyers with high levels of confidence in both provenance and fair payment of the artist.
However, certificates can never be absolute guarantees. Some artworks where the artists have been badly treated or unfairly paid also have certificates and some unethical dealers have been known to create their own certificates.
Buying direct from art centres adds certainty, as art centres are legally-constituted, non-profit cooperatives, owned and run by the artists and their communities.
Buying from a gallery
Many different types and sizes of galleries sell Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, from small tourist shops to high-end city art dealers.
Irrespective of size, the following three questions can help you feel confident you are buying from an ethical gallery. Any reputable dealer will be happy to answer them:
1. Is your gallery a specialist in Aboriginal art?
One or two pieces in amongst other art or souvenirs can sometimes be a warning sign.
Bugai Whyoulter acyrlic on canvas.
Image Martumili Artists
2. How long has your gallery been around?
If it’s suddenly appeared from nowhere, where were they before? And where will they be next week?
Spinifex Arts Project, Vivien Anderson Gallery.
Image: Vivien Anderson
3. Is your gallery a member of the Indigenous Art Code?
If yes, you know it has signed the Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct.
Ethical galleries and dealers will also be willing and able to answer questions in any of the following areas:
- About the artist – his or her 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? (Don’t believe stories about the art centre ripping off the artist so they now deal direct.)
- 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 is a percentage of what they know the retail price of the work will be.
Some unscrupulous dealers pay artists a small amount for the work up front, often exploiting artists in a vulnerable position and then charge inflated retail prices for the work. While not illegal, the Indigenous Art Code does not consider this ethical practice as, in some instances, artists are not given honest information about the true market value of their work.
Use your instincts. 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.
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 isn’t licensed by an Aboriginal artist is not. See Fake Art Harms Culture.
- 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 authentication certificates?
Buying direct from an artist
There are many Indigenous artists across Australia who sells their work directly. Some artists might sell their work on the street others have their own studios which you can visit and some will sell from their own websites. Don’t haggle with individual artists selling their work to you, be respectful and understand that this is their livelihood. An individual artist selling his or her own work is not a dealer so the obligations of dealers under the Code do not apply to individual artists.
Further information on how to buy Aboriginal art ethically can be found at the ANKAAA web site Click here for details
You don’t have to be a dealer to support ethical art
While only commercial dealers can formally sign the Code, individuals or organisations can show their support for ethical practices in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art by joining IartC.
Collectors, public galleries, arts patrons and socially-minded individuals can all help build a healthy, ethical and sustainable Aboriginal art industry. The more members we have, the stronger we are, the more we can achieve.
IartC members have the opportunity to participate in our Annual General Meetings and vote on major issues.