Sale of William Barak artwork breaches ‘Aboriginal cultural traditions’, says Australian Wurundjeri elder
The Melbourne-based Wurundjeri Corporation is hoping to fund $175,000 to secure the return of two previously unseen works by William Barak set to auction at Sotheby’s New York today. But, with a combined estimate over $425,000, it seems unlikely that their bid will go through.
Corroboree (Women in opossum skin capes) (1897; est $300,000-$400,000), an ocher and charcoal drawing on paper, and parry shield (1897; est $15,000-$25,000), a hardwood shield engraved with traditional designs, are previously unknown works that resurfaced in Geneva in 2017 following the death of Pascal de Pury, the great-grandson of Jules de Pury, the cousin of a Swiss winegrower. Barak’s growing family and neighbors during his stay at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, 50km east of Melbourne, Victoria’s capital.
Sotheby’s confirms that the two works by Barak were donated by descendants of the De Pury family, including Swiss auctioneer, art dealer and collector Simon de Pury. He declined to comment for this article.
Barak is arguably one of the most important Australian Aboriginal figures of the 19th century and one of the few recorded artists. Born before white settlers arrived in Victoria, Barak experienced firsthand the ravages of colonization and the destruction of a traditional way of life. As a young man, he witnessed the signing of a disputed treaty between local chieftains and John Batman, an opportunistic rancher and explorer, who murdered three Tasmanian Aborigines, before expanding his pastoral interests in Victoria.
In 1863, Barak helped establish Coranderrk as a self-governing Native farm. And when the colony passed a law prohibiting Aboriginal people from performing traditional ceremonies and speaking in their language, Barak took up painting. Producing 52 paintings in his life, maybe more.
Barak “used his artwork to preserve cultural practices and knowledge,” says Nikita Vanderbyl, an art historian and Barak scholar. The arts journal. “They are filled with indigenous knowledge.” Barak’s works are among the 103 oldest items in an auction ranging from spears, shields and baskets to ‘western desert’ masterpieces by the late Mick Namarari and Emily Kame Kngwarreye, as well as contemporary works by Vernon Ah Khee and Richard Bell.
The auction is part of Sotheby’s New York “Brand Month” and is drawn from a variety of sources, including the Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield Collection, the estate of James Wolfensohn, the former World Bank Director and the collection Thomas Vroom.
When the previously unknown works appeared in Switzerland in 2017, Vanderbyl knew “quite strongly” that they would be linked to the De Purys.
Jules de Pury acquired the works in 1883 while visiting his cousins at Yeringberg Station, property still held by the Australian branch of the De Pury family. When Jules returned to Switzerland, he took them with him.
But Vanderbyl is upset by the family’s decision to offload Barak’s art at auction – the family has already donated “a number” to the Musée d’Ethnographie Neuchâtel, a museum housed in a building bequeathed by James – Ferdinand de Pury in 1904. “I’m just as curious as everyone else to find out why they chose to sell,” she says.
Auntie Joy Murphy Wandin, a descendant of Barak, believes the works were given to the De Pury family “in exchange for cultural knowledge and the security of their place in Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung country”. With the upcoming auction, “indigenous cultural traditions have been violated,” she said in a statement.
A Sotheby’s spokesperson said: “We have been in open dialogue with the company for several weeks now to ensure they are able to participate in a fair and open bidding process. Barak himself was one of the first to create a market for his work, which he gifted to friends and sold to visitors to his community, and was a recognized champion and advocate of his culture to the public. as wide as possible. As a leader, diplomat, and advocate for his people, Barak has forged many close relationships beyond his immediate community, and these works embody that spirit of cultural dialogue and the preservation of their cultural history.
Nevertheless, the rarity of Barak’s art increased his value at auction and further alienated him from his descendants. In 2016, the Wurundjeri Corporation carried out a similar campaign when another previously unknown painting resurfaced at Bonhams auction in Sydney. At the time, they raised $38,000, well below the sale price of $362,000. The result was made worse when the private collector denied the community access to view the work in person. They hope that this time things will be different.