26 paintings sell to one bidder as Cbus sale winds up

Gabriella Coslovich, Australian Financial Review, 26 October 2022

Another great Australian corporate art collection has come to an end. The last parcel of superannuation fund Cbus’s collection was dispersed by Deutscher and Hackett last week, in the final of five auctions this year. The collection of 310-artworks featuring headline artists including Arthur Streeton, Sidney Nolan, and Fred Williams, exceeded expectations and pulled in a total of $11.4 million (including buyers’ fees).

That’s a solid return for Cbus’s initial investment of $2 million in 1990 – about $4 million in today’s figures – and confirmation for the super fund that it was the right time to sell.  

In a statement to Saleroom, a spokesperson from Cbus said: “The strong results of the sale of the Cbus Collection of Australian Art demonstrate it was a prudent time in the market for Australian art to sell the collection. Cbus has an obligation to act in its members’ best interest. While this closes a chapter for Cbus, we’re proud to have been stewards of this incredible collection for four decades.”

Most of the gain was made in the inaugural July sale of 100 highlights, which turned over $9.9 million (including buyer’s fees). The final auction, of a ground-breaking exhibition of Papunya Tula artists, represents a fraction of the total turnover – it made just $184,091 (including buyer’s fees) – but monetary value alone is a poor indicator of its historic and cultural significance.

On sale was the entire 1990 exhibition Friendly Country, Friendly People, featuring 26 paintings, offered as one lot in an online-only sale last Tuesday. The exhibition presented leading figures of the desert art movement including Johnny Warangkula, George Tjungurrayi, and Timmy Payungka Tjapangati.

Commissioned by the Araluen Centre in Alice Springs to mark the 20th anniversary of the Papunya Tula Artists Company, the exhibition travelled widely throughout Australia. It also marked the first time women were acknowledged as artists in their own right and exhibited alongside the men, among them Pansy Napangati, Alison Anderson Nampitjinpa and Sandra Nampitjinpa. Renowned Australian art historian Dick Kimber was the exhibition’s guest curator.

Showing remarkable foresight, Cbus bought the exhibition in its entirety in 1992. Following discussions with auctioneers Deutscher and Hackett, Cbus decided to sell it as a whole as well, in the hope of keeping it together. But there were no guarantees that the historic collection would stay intact. It could well have been snapped up by a trader who might have hoped to profit by later selling the paintings individually. Happily, that hasn’t happened.

The private collector who acquired the lot has told the auctioneers that he has no intention of breaking up the paintings and will offer them on loan for exhibition. Perhaps it’s a reflection of how undervalued Indigenous art remains when a seminal exhibition can be bought in its entirety for under $200,000.

Deutscher and Hackett’s head of Indigenous art, Crispin Gutteridge describes the exhibition as “a pivotal moment in the Western desert movement” and one of the few, if not only, intact collections of paintings from 1989 to 1990. He believes that the exhibition will only grow in cultural significance.

“The collection is a very important window to a particular time in the evolution of Australian Indigenous art and we believed the ideal outcome for the collection was that it was sold as a whole.”

The exhibition links mythologies and family groups from the Luritja, Warlpiri and Pintupi peoples, across the vast lands of the Tanami, Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts of Central and Western Australia.