A Guide To Buying Ethically

Warmun Art Centre, 2019

At Aboriginal Contemporary, we want choosing and buying a piece of Aboriginal art to be as rewarding as owning it – not a mere transaction, more a journey of discovery.

A key part of this is helping our customers feel confident that the artwork they buy is authentic and that the artists, their families and communities are being treated ethically and fairly paid.

To this end, we have put together the following brief guide, explaining how the Aboriginal art market works and some of things to look out for.

When buying Aboriginal art, you will almost certainly be buying from one of the following sources:

  • An art centre
  • A gallery
  • An individual, such as a consultant, dealer or freelancer

Art centres are Aboriginal-owned and run businesses set up to help produce and distribute ethically-created Aboriginal art. Art centres also provide training and career development for artists and arts workers, and act as agents between artists and galleries/museums/institutions.

Most art centres will sell directly to the public but as they are often in extremely remote locations, they also partner with reputable galleries in towns and cities, who are better placed to market and sell their artists’ work.

Galleries promote, support and market artwork through retail spaces, exhibitions, networking and media. Many galleries have close ties to specific art centres and may specialise in art from a particular region. For exhibitions, galleries either select the artwork themselves or curate exhibitions in partnership with art centres, who will often reserve their best work for gallery shows.

The experience, expertise and market knowledge of galleries and gallery owners helps build artists’ careers and provide regular income to communities. Galleries can either buy artwork outright to on-sell, or take it on consignment, paying the art centre once the work is sold. In either case, the retail price is usually set by the art centre to ensure consistent pricing of their artists’ work.

Individual consultants and dealers work in similar ways to galleries but do not necessarily have an exhibition space, nor source their artwork from art centres. Some consultants and dealers have direct relationships with artists, outside of the art centre system.

Wherever you buy your art from, there are some simple guidelines that can help you feel confident that you are buying ethically:

By all means speak to people you know with knowledge of Aboriginal art, but the most important questions will be those you ask the seller. Don’t be shy. Reputable galleries and dealers will have no problem answering questions such as the following: Is the work done by the artist they’re claiming? Will the artist receive fair value for his or her work? What are the artist’s working conditions like? How long has the dealer or gallery been working with this artist or art centre? Is the dealer or gallery a signatory of the Indigenous Art Code?

If the seller is reluctant to share information, it might be a warning sign. Ask the seller to tell you about the artwork, artist, art centre and community. This will tell you how connected the seller is to the artist and art centre, which can help reassure you that Aboriginal people are not taken advantage of.

You can also ask how much of the retail price the artist gets, how much the art centre gets and how much the gallery/dealer gets. Generally, the artist receives 60% of the wholesale price, the art centre receives the other 40%. The gallery or dealer adds 40% as their commission.

However, while art centres do their best to ensure consistent value for their artists’ work, there are no fixed percentages and sellers are ultimately free to set their own prices. Reputable and ethical sellers are usually happy to be transparent about their cost structure and mark-ups.

Be wary if you are offered large discounts on Aboriginal artworks. 30%, 50% or even 80% OFF may mean that either the work has been priced far above its real value to enable an unrealistic discount or that the artist is not being paid properly.

Every artwork should come with a Certificate of Authenticity issued by the art centre (not the dealer or gallery). Certificates of Authenticity include details of both the artist and the artwork. While the certificates of different art centres may vary, they all have the following information:

  • Artist’s name
  • Information about the artist, such as language group, place of birth, skin name
  • Picture of the artwork and, in some cases, the artist
  • Title of the artwork
  • Size of the artwork – make sure it matches the actual artwork
  • Story – This will vary in length and detail from art centre to art centre and from artist to artist
  • Catalogue number - this is an important code that links the artwork back to the artist, art centre and the date it was produced

Note: Before art centres were established, certificates of authenticity were rare and other forms of proof served as provenance. If you are purchasing an artwork on the secondary market (i.e. art not being sold for the first time) be sure you get the best possible proof of authenticity and provenance.

There are several ways Aboriginal artists and their communities are sometimes exploited by unethical people wishing to profit from their art:

  • By their work being forged by other Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people
  • By falsifying authentication documents
  • By exploiting the low socio-economic position of many artists. For example, if artists need money quickly, they may be coerced into creating or selling their work for less than it is worth or for material goods that undermine its true value

People who exploit Aboriginal artists for their own profit are called ‘carpet-baggers’. They may pay less for artists’ work than its true value and distribute forgeries or artwork that has been acquired unethically. Unlike reputable galleries and dealers, carpet-baggers are not accountable to organisations such as the Indigenous Art Code, which help ensure best practice and call out unfair profiteering and unethical selling.

Carpet-baggers short-change artists, devalue their work, harm culture and undermine the many highly-ethical galleries and dealers who work hard to build and support artists, communities and the Aboriginal art sector.

Carpet-baggers short-change artists, devalue their work, harm culture and undermine the many highly-ethical galleries and dealers who work hard to build and support artists, communities and the Aboriginal art sector.

Carpet-baggers short-change artists, devalue their work, harm culture and undermine the many highly-ethical galleries and dealers who work hard to build and support artists, communities and the Aboriginal art sector.

Many galleries, including our own, enable you to confidently buy ethically-sourced Aboriginal art and artefacts online. Please feel free to email or call with any questions, such as those above. When searching for Aboriginal art online, it’s worth remembering that art centres do not put their artists’ work up on online auction sites. This does not mean any Aboriginal art you see on these sites is necessarily fake or unethically sourced, but it may be a reason to be extra cautious before you buy.

The simplest way for most people to feel confident they are buying ethically is to go to a reputable gallery that sources its artworks from Aboriginal owned and run art centres.

At Aboriginal Contemporary, we have spent ten years building close working relationships with more than 15 art centres, many in the most remote parts of Australia. These trusted partnerships mean our customers can enjoy the journey of choosing contemporary Aboriginal art - from both established and emerging artists - with confidence that what they are buying is both authentic and ethically-sourced.

When an artwork is sold by or on behalf of an art centre, the artist will be fairly paid and money will be invested back into the art centre to support running costs and community programs. Art Centres are a vital part of community life in remote Australia, providing not only much-needed income and employment but supporting the preservation of traditional life by being a focus for family connection, social and cultural activities.

 Links to other information on buying Aboriginal art ethically