Why ‘provenance’ is key when buying Aboriginal art

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the provenance or where the painting came from, is one of the most important pieces of information you need to know when buying Aboriginal art.

For many people purchasing Aboriginal art is already a step into the unknown. This is not helped by the fact that not all Aboriginal art is ethically sourced or was painted by the artist nominated on the painting.

There are a number of people selling aboriginal art who take advantage of artists knowing they will sell their paintings for very little money to access quick cash. Worse, there was a recent example of a well known artist being paid to put her name on the back of paintings which were not painted by her but were copies of her work. These paintings were subsequently offered on an auction website for large sums of money, as being original paintings by the artist.

One way to be totally confident about the provenance of aboriginal art is to purchase work sourced from aboriginal owned and run art centres. These art centres are located in remote areas of Western Australia, Northern Territory, South Australia and Northern Queensland. The artists work in an environment where they are supported, encouraged and properly paid for the work they produce. The art centre provides a certificate with each art work confirming that the painting was painted by the artist. The managers of these art centres (who are hired by the community) make sure the artist’s work is placed with trusted galleries around Australia and overseas.


Where a painting was painted and whether it was painted for an art centre can have a dramatic impact on the value of a painting. Recently at an auction, a large painting by a well known artist, which was certified as having been painted at a respected art centre, sold at auction for over $200,000, including buyers premium. A similar sized painting by the same artist came up for sale at another auction around the same time as the first painting was auctioned. This painting did not come with a certificate from the respected art centre but came with a certificate from a gallery. This painting sold for around $20,000 with buyer premium, a difference of around $180,000.

There were number of reasons for this large discrepancy in price. Firstly, the second painting was not as good a painting as the first. Second, the first painting had been auctioned in a high profile auction, whereas the other was offered for sale in a smaller auction of mixed quality work. But, in my mind, the most significant factor, was that the second painting did not come with a certificate from an art centre. Potential buyers were left asking why. For most collectors this would mean that they would not be prepared to risk the fact that is was either not painted by the artist or that she may not have been properly paid for the work.

Unfortunately a certificate provided with a painting does not always mean it was painted by the artist or that it was ethically sourced. Unethical suppliers of art also produce certificates and photos of the artist painting the work.

There are two ways to ensure that your painting has good “provenance”, buy direct from an art centre, the Revealed exhibition in Perth recently was one way of doing this or buy from a gallery who is supplied work by the art centres. At Tunbridge Gallery we deal with over twenty community art centres from, Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia. We are happy to recommend ethically sourced paintings, weavings and sculptures. You can buy work happy in the knowledge that the artists has been paid fairly and that the work is authentic. Then you can sit back and enjoy your painting!