Sotheby's withdraws sculptures of Woureddy & Truganini busts

Sotheby's withdraws sculptures in outcry

Michaela Boland | The Australian | 25th August 2009 + RELATED ARTICLES

Click for larger image and descriptionAfter a protest by Tasmanian Aborigines, Sotheby's last night pulled from sale a historic pair of portrait busts just hours before the two were to go under the hammer in Melbourne.

Woureddy, An Aboriginal Chief of Van Diemen's Land and Trucaninny, Wife of Woureddy by the English artist Benjamin Law were expected to set a record price for sculpture in Australia, with pre-sale estimates of between $500,000 and $700,000.

Protesters objected to the commercial sale of images of their ancestors.

"It's pretty crass," said Hetti Perkins, senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of NSW.

"The descendants of the people represented in these rare and significant artworks are concerned about the representations of their ancestors being auctioned to the highest bidder."

After withdrawing Woureddy, Sotheby's issued a statement to reinforce its respect for Aboriginal culture. Sotheby's managing director Lesley Alway said last night the auction house had wanted to protect its Aboriginal arts business.

Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell praised Sotheby's decision to withdraw the items, but added: "We couldn't get an assurance that the busts would not be sold behind the scenes.

"If you make a sculpture of the dead, the spirit of those people can be captured.".

Tasmanian Aborigines believed Truganini's legacy had been defiled by white Australians, who perceived her as the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine, Ms Perkins said.

Two activists with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, of which Mr Mansell is the legal director, attended Sotheby's auction in Melbourne last night seeking custody of the busts, which are among the few remaining from 30 original sets.

All other known pairs are held by institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Aboriginal art wrangle

Sally Glaetzer | The mercury | August 26, 2009

Academics have defended opposition to the sale of two art works, rejecting claims of political correctness gone mad.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre opposed the planned auction of the busts of famous Tasmanian Aborigines Truganini and Woureddy on the basis of cultural sensitivity.

The busts, which were expected to fetch up to $700,000, were withdrawn from sale just hours before Monday night's auction at Sotheby's in Melbourne.

The busts, sculpted by Benjamin Law in the 1830s, are owned by a New South Wales family.

The TAC's protest against the sale attracted scathing criticism from Mercury readers, who described it as "ridiculous" and "political correctness gone wrong".

"These figurines are art -- not Aboriginal relics. You could more properly say they're relics from British early settlement and definitely not Aboriginal art," one reader wrote on the Mercury website.

Another wrote: "Are we on the verge of an ambit claim for all 19th-century art works which depict Aborigines?"

However, University of Tasmania School of Art director Noel Frankham said the controversy did not foreshadow debate about all art depicting Aborigines.

"I think this is about the significance of these particular objects and of these two extremely important figures in our history," Professor Frankham said yesterday.

Jon Altman, director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, said the planned auction of the busts was akin to auctioning off war memorabilia or something equally sensitive in European culture.

"How would people feel about the shirt that John Kennedy wore when he was assassinated being auctioned?" Prof Altman said.

"There shouldn't be commercial transactions over something that has such symbolic importance."

The TAC said yesterday it was offensive to display images of the dead inappropriately.

"Not all collections about Aborigines need to be given up by institutions," spokesman Michael Mansell said.

"We seek items that should not be out of Aboriginal hands, such as images of our dead."

Auction: Woureddy & Truganini busts

Paul Carter | AAP | August 21, 2009 + RELATED ARTICLES

Sotheby's auction house is ignoring calls to withdraw the busts of two Aboriginal leaders from sale.

The 1836 busts of Tasmanian Aboriginal leaders Woureddy and his wife Truganini are set to fetch up to $700,000 at a Sotheby's auction in Melbourne on Monday.

Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim and Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell want the busts withdrawn from sale and given to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Asked to respond to their call, Sotheby's spokeswoman Anne Wall said the sculptures are only one pair of multiple sets held at numerous art galleries and institutions.

"While these were on loan to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for many years they have, more recently, been on display in the National Portrait Gallery," she said.

"The owners have contracted Sotheby's to handle the sale on their behalf. They will be offered at auction Monday 24 August."

Mr McKim said Sotheby's must realise the importance of these images to Tasmania's Aboriginal community, and immediately withdraw them from sale.

"To treat these images purely as works of art is disrespectful to the ancestors of Truganini and Woureddy," he said in a statement on Friday.

Mr McKim said the state and federal governments should purchase the works and hand them back to the Aboriginal community if they are not withdrawn from sale.

The patinated plaster busts, about 75cm tall, were originally bought by Hobart convict turned businessman Judah Solomon and were made by Benjamin Law, who knew Truganini and her husband, in the 1830s.

The Solomon family has always owned the works but they were on loan to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for 26 years until they helped open the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra last year.

Mr Mansell said Truganini and Woureddy are dead and they can't defend themselves against the symbolism that is portrayed by the racists of Australia who abuse their memory.

"The auction house should take responsibility and so should the vendor," Mr Mansell said in a statement

Truganini bust sale battle

Michelle Paine | | 21st August 2009

Click for larger image and descriptionRare busts of renowned Tasmanian Aborigines Truganini and Woureddy are expected to fetch up to $700,000.

The pieces will go under the hammer at a Sotheby's auction in Melbourne on Monday.

The works are considered by many to be Australia's first major sculptures and are especially valuable because of their story.

They were originally bought by Hobart convict turned businessman Judah Solomon and were made by Benjamin Law, who knew Truganini and her husband, in the 1830s.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre legal adviser Michael Mansell has called on Sotheby's to withdraw the busts from sale and hand them back to Tasmania's Aboriginal community.

The Solomon family has always owned the works but they were on loan to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery for 26 years until they helped open the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra last year.

Sotheby's senior researcher and paintings specialist David Hansen was in charge of the busts when he worked at TMAG.

"They have tremendous importance historically and culturally," Dr Hansen said.

"She is a very potent image and this is a particularly potent one because it is such a fine portrait.

"The busts are in very fine condition.

"Benjamin Law was Australia's first professional sculptor."

Until 1921, the busts stood in Temple House, where Hobart police detectives now work.

Dr Hansen said Law could have made up to 30 casts but that was not certain.

Eight pairs and four individual busts are known to exist in public collections worldwide.

Tasmanian historian Cassandra Pybus hoped a public gallery would acquire the busts.

"I think it would be tragic if these busts were to leave the public domain," she said.

"They should be on show to the public, either in Canberra or Hobart as they are of enormous historical significance.

"Perhaps [Hobart-based art collector] David Walsh might like to acquire them for his Museum of Old and New Art, or another local benefactor."

TMAG director Bill Bleathman said the gallery had its own pair of busts, although its Truganini figure needed conservation work, which would be done.

"If they were donated to us or could be acquired under a cultural gift program, that would be great," he said.

The gallery had pursued the gift option, which allows tax deductibility, in vain.

Mr Mansell said: "Truganini is dead and she can't defend herself against the symbolism that is portrayed by the racists of Australia who abuse her memory.

"The auction house should take responsibility and so should the vendor. They should be accountable for changing these racist attitudes."

He said past, wrong references to Truganini as the last full-blood Aborigine implied present Aborigines were somehow impure or tainted.

Anger over bust auction

Michelle Paine | | 24th August 2009

Tasmanian Aborigines will protest against the auction today of busts of Truganini and Woureddy.

The plaster busts of the famous Aborigines are included in the Melbourne sale of important Australian art and the asking price is $500,000 to $700,000.

Historians say the downturn in the art market could mean the Benjamin Law sculptures could be bought for Tasmania.

But some Aborigines are concerned at the trade and use of the busts.

"Sotheby's is auctioning two busts of Aboriginal people who were abused while alive and held up as entertainment after death," said Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre secretary Nala Mansell, who will protest the auction in Melbourne.

"The significance of the busts is that they depict, for racists, the myth of the extermination of Aborigines in Tasmania. They are held up as trophies as the ultimate racist plot -- if physical extermination fails, kill them off through images.

"We wonder if people would likewise make money from Nazi images of attempted genocide of the Jews.

"These busts are not art. They are images of the dead associated with a racist plan to exterminate a people.

"It is disgusting that commercial gain is placed ahead of stamping out racism, and the hurt to the feelings of Aboriginal people.

"The dead are not here to defend themselves, so we do it in honour of their memory."

Greens leader Nick McKim has backed Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell's call for the busts to be pulled from auction and returned to the indigenous community.

Mr McKim said the state and federal governments should buy the two sculptures and hand them back to the Aboriginal community.

Leading historian Lyndall Ryan said the "priceless" items of Tasmanian heritage were for auction at a time when the market had collapsed worldwide.

Professor Ryan said she expected they would be sold later to a private collector for well below their value.

"This could also be a window of opportunity for the TMAG or other public institutions in Tasmania to acquire them for a reasonable price," Prof Ryan said.