Buying Indigenous Art Ethically: A Guide
As the Indigenous art sector has grown, there’s been an increase in dubiously acquired and fake Aboriginal art. Many Indigenous artists are prey to carpetbaggers and conmen who cowboy about the desert collecting canvases from vulnerable artists in exchange for trivial amounts of money only to resell them on the market for thousands. Meanwhile, fake ‘Aboriginal art’ is being mass produced in factories overseas, and sold in tourist shops on the high streets of Australian cities.
So how do you know if what you’re purchasing is authentic? And how do you ensure you’re not participating in the exploitation of Indigenous artists?
Luckily, it’s not very complicated. The guidelines below will ensure you’ll always be able to spot the indicators of ethically sold Indigenous art:
The best thing you can do is purchase work from art centres.
Community art centres like Barkly Regional Arts are the gold standard for the ethical production of Indigenous art. Art centres were established to support the careers of Indigenous artists and protect them from carpetbaggers and conmen. An art centre acts as a broker between the artist and the broader industry; its purpose is to facilitate an artist's career by supporting their creative development and representing their best interests when works are sold on the art market. While each art centre takes a different approach to the management of an artist’s career, each provide artists with materials, studio space, professional development and ultimately aim to get the artist the best price and most exposure for their work. Although many art centres operate remotely, most have websites through which you can purchase works online with the peace of mind that the work has been made and sold ethically. You can shop works by the Artists of the Barkly here.
Art centres are the gold standard for ethically produced Indigenous art
Find out if the dealer you’re working with is a signatory of the Indigenous Art Code.
All reputable art centres are signatories to the Indigenous Art Code (IAC), but galleries and private dealers can also become signatories. The IAC is an industry code of conduct established to promote ethical trading in the Indigenous art market. In 2007 the IAC was established following a senate inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous art sector. The report identified ‘scams in the desert’ as a key threat to the Indigenous art market. It highlighted two major concerns; the integrity of art works that are sold in the Indigenous art market and the conditions under which those works are produced and traded. The IAC was established to reduce exploitation of Indigenous artists and promote transparency within the market. Ethical traders of Indigenous art are usually signatories of the code and have thus promised to implement its recommendations.
Nonetheless, the application of the code is voluntary and shonky sellers continue to operate. So how do you know which traders are a signatory of the code and which aren’t? The best way to ensure that you’re purchasing authentic and ethical Indigenous art is to look for the IAC logo: art centres and galleries who are signatories to the code will likely advertise it. You’ll see the IAC logo on the Artists of the Barkly website, promoted on the door of our gallery in Tennant Creek and even printed on posters and gallery labels throughout our studios. If you’re thinking about buying a piece of Indigenous art from a trader, but you can’t see the IAC logo anywhere, ask the trader if they are a signatory to the code and request proof.
Before buying a piece of art find out who the artist is.
Another way to ensure that you're purchasing art ethically is to find out about the artist. Staff at an art centre will know all the artists they represent personally and will often have been working with them for many years. Furthermore, a good, honest dealer will either know the artists personally or know a great deal about them. The IAC recommends you ask five questions before purchasing Indigenous art:
- Who is the artist?
- Where is the artist from?
- How do you (the art centre, gallery, dealer) get artworks?
- How is the artist paid for the work? And, if you're purchasing works on the primary market, how much of the final sale price will the artist get?
- If you’re purchasing a reproduction of an artist’s work, be it a print, a t-shirt or some funky crockery, ask, how is this work licensed? How are royalties being paid to the artist?
Look for signs of authenticity
Work produced at art centres and sold under the IAC will be authentic. However, if you’re buying outside of this context (which is ethically riskier) and are not so sure if what you’re looking at is authentic or not, how can you tell you’re not being duped? Some estimates suggest up to 80% of 'Aboriginal art' products marketed to tourists in shops are not Aboriginal at all. The safest way to ensure authenticity is by following the steps above and buying from art centres, signatories of the IAC and finding out as much as you can about the artist.
There are other ways to spot fake art; varnish on wooden objects, the mixing of styles, or work painted on poor quality, plasticky canvas rather than quality linen or cotton can all be indicators that an artwork is fake. Furthermore, authentic pieces of art will likely bare the art centre's stamp on the back of the canvas, along with the artist's name, a catalogue number, a size and if you’re lucky a story. If the painting has nothing written on back that could be a red flag, unless you’ve purchased it directly from an artist.
Another clue, and this one is a bit tricker, is to look at the painting itself. You'll likely see little imperfections; drips of paint here and there, the faint mark of a water jar, lumps caused by the thick application of paint, a background colour peeping through a brush stroke, maybe some dog hair painted into the canvas. These little imperfections give work character and indicate that what you’re looking at is authentic. If something looks too perfect, or is too uniform it may just be too good to be true...
Marlene Philomac painting in Barkly Art's Canteen Creek studio.
So, you’ve checked all these things, you’re happy the dealer is ethical, and the artwork is authentic, you’re going to pull the trigger and buy a piece you love! There is one more thing to remember: ask for a certificate of authenticity. A certificate of authenticity will have the art centre’s logo and an image of the work; it will tell you a bit about the artist, the artwork and provide evidence of provenance, making it very important to the work’s resale value.
Most Indigenous artists live on very little. Income from art sales provides artists with funds to spend on food for their families, bills, and perhaps the occasional trip out to Country. As a collector of Indigenous art, it’s important for you to be conscious of the process of creating real Indigenous Art and to do your best not to be part of the exploitation of vulnerable people. At the end of the day, you have the power to ensure that the process you’re involved in is an ethical and fair one.