Aboriginal artefacts in Sotheby's auction prompt questions over provenance

“I defy anyone to look at these and not feel uncomfortable,” says Indigenous artist Jonathan Jones of the broad shields listed in the catalogue for the Sotheby’s London auction of Aboriginal Art on September 21.

At first glance, the listing may seem relatively innocuous. However, little is known about how this particular shield came to be in private hands. 

Jones, along with National Museum of Australia senior curator Carol Cooper, is on a mission to find out exactly where shields like this came from, right down to identifying the people who made them. He has set up an informal group of Aboriginal elders from around south-east Australia who he consults when he and Cooper come across similar pieces at auction, in private collections or in institutions.

A number of 19th-century weapons such as boomerangs and spears are listed in the Sotheby’s auction catalogue, alongside pieces from the Fiona Brockhoff collection of early Aboriginal sculpture and contemporary Indigenous art from the estate of Gabrielle Pizzi.

Asked about the provenance of items such as the shield, Tim Klingender, a consultant on Aboriginal art to Sotheby’s London, said it was true some items had been taken as curios in the 18th century and had remained in private hands since, only to be rediscovered in homes in England and Scotland.

Regarding recent cases in which items had been returned by institutions, such as the Shiva statue repatriated to India by the National Gallery of Australia after it was found to have been stolen from a temple, Klingender says there is no comparison. Unlike the Shiva, there is no suggestion the weapons listed at Sotheby’s were stolen, nor their ownership history falsified. However, he says it is true that some ethnographers collected many items such as bark paintings without recording “a single name”.

Jones, whose research focuses specifically on shields, says the lack of detail is deeply problematic. “It’s a challenging idea. If something was sold was it under duress? Were people in a position where they could refuse a sale?,” he asks.