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Last Updated: Friday, 22 August, 2003, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK
Australia's ancient art as modern commodity

By Dominic Hughes
In Sydney

In upmarket Sydney galleries, art from the Australian Bush is beginning to attract some serious interest.

For the artists from the deserts of central Australia, this is their first visit to Sydney. But while their vivid work looks at home in this inner city setting, it is grounded in generations of tradition.

Artist Inawinge Williamson says all the works are inspired by aboriginal body painting or rock art, from a long time ago, she says, when our great-great-grandparents painted in caves.

Aboriginal art
Aboriginal art is commanding high prices
Many of these works tell some of the ancient stories of aboriginal people, depicting legends, myths and the country they come from.

But in the modern day art market they have also become valuable commodities.

Interest in aboriginal art has exploded over the last decade. Rather than being regarded as mere cultural artefacts, these pieces are now thought of as being serious works of art, and they attract price tags to match.

Much of that interest has come from outside Australia.

At Sotheby's auction house in London, a recent annual sale of aboriginal art brought in about US$4.5m, outstripping previous years. And about 70% of works were sold to buyers in the United States and Europe.

"Now it's a large and sophisticated market, and the interest internationally has grown each year as it has in Australia," said Tim Klingender, director of aboriginal art at Sotheby's.

"The Australian market now is particularly strong, but the international market's even stronger, and each sale has been more successful than previously."

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Contemporary aboriginal art grew from ancient rock and body painting, and much of it is still created in a traditional setting.

But at Sydney's Hogarth gallery, they have found Australian interest has lagged a little bit behind that of the international collectors.

"I guess that sort of reflects a little bit against the Australian population, who've haven't been so quick to learn that understanding from people who've travelled here from overseas," said Jennifer Orr.

"They're often enormously well read about the work and have a great understanding about the different areas of aboriginal art."

Indigenous artists may have been overlooked by some Australian collectors until relatively recently, but rising prices mean that is unlikely to continue.

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