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July 18, 2011

Duncan Chappell on “Forgery of Australian Aboriginal Art”

Duncan Chappell
by Molly Cotter, ARCA Intern

Professor Duncan Chappell, Chair of the Centre of Excellence in Policing and Security International Advisory Board and an Adjunct Professor at the Sydney Law School at the University of Sydney, discussed the moral and monetary corruption of contemporary forgeries in his presentation, "Forgery of Australian Aboriginal Art", at ARCA's International Art Crime Conference in Amelia, Italy.

Aboriginal Australians make up only 2% of the nation’s population. Their art is of extremely spiritual nature and works consist mostly of desert sand, rocks, and homemade pigments -- things from the earth. The value of Aboriginal art has soared in recent years with one work selling for a record $2.4 million at auction. The market itself grosses nearly $100-$500 million annually, which makes it a major source of income for many Aboriginal communities and individuals. Because of the swelling demand for Aboriginal art on the market, more and more pieces are being forged and slipped into auction sales. Aboriginal forgeries are mores upsetting than traditional forged works because they undermine the integrity of Aboriginal art, its meaning, and even the original painter’s spirituality.

In one case, a married couple was tried and convicted of selling nearly $300,000 worth of fake Rover Thomas paintings through Australian auction houses. When initially arrested, police seized not only numerous Thomas catalogues, but two unfinished forged canvases. In other cases, criminals forged prints to provenance to entire exhibitions and unfortunately, often suffered minimal consequences.

Authorities have run into issues in trying to protect the cultural heritage of Aboriginal art. Sometimes artists sign blank canvases before beginning work on them or family members aided in the production of thee work; therefore, issues of provenance and authorship becomes more complicated.

The aforementioned examples as well a number of civil suits underscore the need for due diligence of galleries and auction houses not only to defend their reputation but the integrity of the Aboriginal artists and their legacies.