Art, Land and the DreamingArt, Land and the Dreaming

Art is a central part of Aboriginal life and is intimately connected to land, law and religious belief. Connection to a person’s home land is deeply felt. Mick Dodson (former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Justice Commissioner) has expressed this powerfully:

To understand our law, our culture and our relationship to the physical and spiritual world, you must begin with land. Everything about aboriginal society is inextricably woven with, and connected to, land. Culture is the land, the land and spirituality of aboriginal people, our cultural beliefs or reason for existence is the land. You take that away and you take away our reason for existence. We have grown that land up. We are dancing, singing, and painting for the land. We are celebrating the land. Removed from our lands, we are literally removed from ourselves.

Aboriginal people, when speaking in English of this connection, often refer to land as “country”. Anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has described ‘country’ in this way:

“People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy. .country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind, and spirit; heart’s ease.”

An excellent source to explore the relationship of two Aboriginal communities with their country – the Gunditjmara nation of south west Victoria and the Kutjungka of north western Australia – is the Lore of the Land CD-ROM and associated Web site.

Aboriginal art takes many forms. Traditionally it was made for purely cultural reasons and was only able to be created or viewed by people initiated to the proper level of knowledge or understanding. More recently, there has emerged work that has been made consciously to be seen by the non-initiated or for commercial purposes. However, irrespective of whether the art is for private ceremonial purposes or is for the public, it remains inspired by the traditional marks and symbols from the Dreaming. The materials used are varied and have ranged from rock engravings and paintings through works on bark, wooden sculpture to ephemeral paintings on sand, on human bodies and on headdresses or other materials.

A Yanyuwa man from the Gulf of Carpentaria (Mussolini Harvey) has described the link between body painting and the Dreaming:

“In our ceremonies we wear marks on our bodies, they come from the dreaming too, we carry the design that the Dreamings gave to us. When we wear that Dreaming mark we are carrying the country, we are keeping the Dreaming held up, we are keeping the country and the Dreaming alive.”

Nearly all Aboriginal art can be related to landscape and some paintings and designs do represent explicitly the physical relationship between different features of the landscape. However, Aboriginal paintings should be seen primarily as maps of conceptual relationships that influence the way the landscape is seen and understood. When Aboriginal paintings do represent specific features of landscape, they show them in their mythical rather than their physical relationship to one another.

As well as its essential spiritual and symbolic character, Aboriginal art increasingly has a social and political dimension. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, leader of the Gumatj people, has clearly expressed the importance of art to contemporary Aboriginal culture:

We are painting, as we have always done, to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and the rights and responsibilities we have to it. We paint to show the rest of the world that we own this country and the country owns us. Our painting is a political act

Contacting Aboriginal Art Online

Welcome to the contact and service section of our Web site. I am the director of Aboriginal Art Online and will be happy to help you personally with any inquiries about art works or any other aspect of the services we offer.

We specialise in responding to inquiries about specific artists and are happy to draw on our wide network of contacts to find works by them.

You can contact us by email, telephone or ordinary post. We aim to respond to all inquiries within 24 hours and for most contacts sooner than that.

Our office is open from 8.00 am to 6.30 pm Australian Eastern Standard Time (GMT+10 hours) from Monday to Friday; we are also often able to reply to messages on Saturdays or Sundays.

Martin Wardrop, Director of Aboriginal Art Online
In the central Australian
bush between Yuendumu
and Papunya

We welcome any comment from you about the Website, the information contained in it and the artworks and other goods offered through the Online Shop.

Martin Wardrop
Director, Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd

Our contact details are:

Post: Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd
189 Miller Street
O’Connor ACT 2602

Telephone: International +61-2-6166 2198

In Australia 1800 207729 or 02 6166 2198

Email: (delete “nospam”)

Please note that valuation is not a service that our company offers. There is a page on our Web site that covers the topic of valuation and appraisal.

Aboriginal Art Online Pty Ltd is an Australian-owned company based in Canberra, ACT and is registered under Australia’s Corporations Law (ABN 36 092 463 431).

How do Native Title and Land Rights differ?

Native title and land rights both recognise the traditional rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ to land. However, they are legally very different. One (native title) is based on traditional indigenous ownership of land and waters, while the other (land rights) is a legislative response by parliaments to those traditional rights.

From the mid 1970s the Australia Federal and State governments began to legislate to return certain Crown (Government) land to indigenous communities and to allow claims to to other Crown land. The 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which applies to the Northern Territory, is the best known example. These actions were based on the perceived need of indigenous people to have access to, or ownership of, their country.

Separately from these special legislative schemes, the High Court in its Mabo decision recognised for the first time in common law the rights of indigenous owners to their lands. In 1993 the Australian Federal Government introduced legislation to respond to the Mabo decision.

<>This legislation, the Native Title Act 1993, set up mechanisms for “native title claims” by indigenous people who assert that their traditional rights have not been extinguished, and also to validate retrospectively the land titles of the occupiers that may have been called into question by the decision.
In a land rights claim, Indigenous Australians seek a grant of title to land from the Commonwealth, State or Territory governments. A grant of land may recognise traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests in land, and protect those interests by giving indigenous people legal ownership of that land. Land may be granted to people who have historical links to an area or who need land.

In some parts of Australia, it is also possible for indigenous people to apply for compensation if appropriate land is not claimable. All land rights claims must meet a set of conditions in order to be accepted.

Different types of land rights laws in Australia allow for the grant of land to Indigenous Australians under various conditions. A successful land rights claim usually results in a special grant of freehold title or perpetual lease. A title document of the land is issued. The title is normally held by a community or an organisation, not by individuals.

There are usually some special restrictions on selling, and dealing with, land that has been granted in a land rights claim. Normally, the land will be passed down to future generations, in a way that recognises the community’s traditional connection to that country.

Riversleigh Fossils – World Heritage

This site is dedicated to information about the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil site in remote north west Queensland in the tropics of Australia. The current page gives a very brief summary of the significance of Riversleigh, while we develop more pages of information and links.

Riversleigh covers an area of approximately 80 square kilometres and is located 250 km north-west of Mt Isa. The fossils document the evolution and changes of Australia’s terrestrial fauna and ecosystems.

Riversleigh from the air

Riversleigh limestone outcrops from the air

Riversleigh is one of the world’s richest Oligo-Miocene mammal records, linking that period (15-25 million years ago) to the predominantly modern assemblages of the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs. The site provides exceptional examples of middle to late Tertiary mammal assemblages, in a continent whose mammalian evolutionary history has been the most isolated and most distinctive in the world.

The extensive fossil deposits at Riversleigh are encased in hard, rough limestone, which was formed in lime-rich freshwater pools. They span a record of mammal evolution of at least 20 million years in length, providing the first records for many distinctive groups of living mammals, such as marsupial moles and feather-tailed possums, as well as many other unique and now extinct Australian mammals such as ‘marsupial lions’.

The variety of deposits at Riversleigh has led to an understanding of how the environment has changed over time from a rich rainforest community to semi-arid grassland, and how the animals that lived in it have changed too.

The discovery of the fossils at Riversleigh has profoundly altered the understanding of Australia’s mid-Cainozoic vertebrate diversity. The remains of a 15 million-year-old monotreme has provided new information about this highly distinctive group of mammals, and several Tertiary thylacines have been identified. Placental mammals are represented by more than 35 bat species and the Riversleigh fossil bat record is the richest in the world.

Vast arrays of often exquisitely preserved marsupial fossils dominate the assemblages. These include species long extinct, such as:

carnivorous kangaroos,
marsupial moles,
primitive koalas and wombats,
huge crocodiles,
gigantic flightless birds,
a range of ancestral thylacines (Tasmanian tigers),
ancestral platypus (representing monotremes),
rodents (representing placental mammals),
small lizards and beetles, and
more than 40 different bat species, making Riversleigh one of the richest bat sites in the world.
“Only in one or two places on the surface of our planet, in the course of the last three thousand million years, have conditions been just right to preserve anything like a representative sample of the species living at any particular time. Those places are the rare treasure houses of palaeontology. Riversleigh is one of them.”
Sir David Attenborough.

Since 1983, the preserved remains of thousands of ancient inhabitants of northern Australia have been recovered from Riversleigh. Almost half of what we know about the evolution of Australian mammals in the last 30 million years comes from bones found at a single site in the Riversleigh fossil beds. Amazingly half of these bones were unearthed in one hour.
Diprotodon – Image source Riversleigh Centre, Mt Isa
Diprotodon: this sheep-sized herbivorous animal was the largest marsupial known from anywhere in the world.

The Dreamtime

The Dreamtime is a widely used, but not well understood, term describing key aspects of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and life. Following is an extract from an book by Geoff Moore. “Myth, Mystery and Meaning of the Dreamtime”. It explores the Dreamtime through elements of philosophy; psychology; spirituality, lore and secrecy that were the basis of the beliefs and practices of pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. He is the facilitator of the Australian Aborigines History and Culture Research Project.

Dreamtime Origins
“The Aborigines learned about the origins of the tribe through their Dreamtime creation myths, that told of the significant actions of the creators. The myths were the basis of Aboriginal society and were responsible for providing certainty about existence. They contributed to their survival and it is beyond dispute that they survived for thousands of years. The Australian aborigines believed that the land they occupied was once vacuous – empty. This belief was a source of great mystery to them. It was also a great truth that was known with absolute certainty, because the ancestors had said this was the way things once were. Then, during what has become known as the Dreamtime, the land, the sky above and all they contained were formed by the actions of supernatural and mysterious beings.

“The concept of the Dreamtime was first researched by Spencer and Gillen in their study of the Arunta (Arrernte) tribe of Central Australia. They came to understand the words Alchera and Aldjeringa, as identifying a ‘creative period’. Other tribes had words in their language for the same concept. As communication between the Arunta people and the non-Aboriginal scientists improved, it became apparent to them, that the aborigines understood the Dreamtime as a beginning. Here it is pointed out that there is a significant difference between Aboriginal thinking and that of others. In particular the belief that the Dreamtime is a period on a continuum of past, present and future.

“Aboriginal people understood the Dreamtime as a beginning that never ended. In one sense it was the past, the sacred past. But as Spencer and Gillen found, the word Tjurjunga was also associated with the Dreamtime. Tjurjunga identified a category of belief and action. A concept that will become more obvious as we proceed through this book. For the moment, it is sufficient to say that Tjurjunga identified the belief that the Dreamtime never ended.

“The Dreamtime itself has been explained in a number of ways. Various explanations refer to creators who were mysterious and supernatural beings. They include references to men and women ‘just like us’ who had the ability to shape-change into animals and other fauna; creators such as the Rainbow Serpent and also All-father and All-mother figures. There have also been references to the creators as heroes and heroines. The essential point is that each tribe had a collection of Dreamtime creation stories. In other words there were desert, mountain, alluvial plains and seacoast Dreamtime stories.

“Land itself was an icon because of the spiritual basis on which it was created and the fact that some of the creators continued to live in the land, or in the sky above watching over them. Broadly speaking they told of creative actions that resulted in the formation of the earth, the sky above and all they contain. Every hill, water hole and tree, every animals, bird and marine life along with every other living creature and natural phenomenon was believed to have come into existence in the Dreamtime.

“It was during the Dreamtime that the creators made men and women, decreed the laws which all must obey – their behavior to one another, the customs of food distribution, the rules of marriage, the rituals of initiation and the ceremonies of death which must be performed so that the spirit of the dead would travel peacefully to his or her spirit-place.

“Although the Aborigines believed that the Dreamtime was a beginning that never ended, some of their stories told them that the mythical creators disappeared. Here it is tempting to say that they believed that at an inexplicable point of time the Dreamtime ended, but this is not what they aborigines believed. They believed that the creators disappeared from the sight of mere mortals, but continued to live in secret places. Some lived in the tribe’s territory in rock crevices, trees and water holes. Others went up into the sky above as heavenly bodies. Others changed into (or perhaps became) natural forces such as wind, rain, thunder and lightning.”

Dreaming and the Dreamtime

The Dreaming is a term used by Aborigines to describe the relations and balance between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. It is an English word but its meaning goes beyond any suggestion of a spiritual or dream-related state. Rather, the Dreaming relates to a period from the origin of the universe to a time before living memory or experience – a time of creator ancestors and supernatural beings.

This time is also called the Dreamtime, when the Rainbow Serpent moved across the land and the Wandjina were active in the clouds and skies. (For a more detailed discussion go to our Dreamtime page).

These creator ancestors formed the features of the land and all living things and also set down the laws for social and moral order. The Dreaming, as well as answering questions about origins, provides a harmonious framework for human experience in the universe – and the place of all living things within it.

Each Aboriginal person’s totem and Dreaming is determined by the place in the landscape where the mother feels her first signs of being pregnant. At this place, the unborn person receives the spirit of a totemic ancestor – for example honey ant, possum, goanna or water – and the Dreaming connected with the place.

This harmony between human existence and other natural things was expressed by Silas Roberts, first Chairman of the Northern Land Council, in this way:

Aboriginals see themselves as part of nature. We see all things natural as part of us. All the things on Earth we see as part human. This is told through the ideas of dreaming. By dreaming we mean the belief that long ago, these creatures started human society. These creatures, these great creatures are just as much alive today as they were in the beginning. They are everlasting and will never die. They are always part of the land and nature as we are. Our connection to all things natural is spiritual.
Features of the landscape are the most visible signs of the past activities of ancestral beings. The ancestral beings led lives much as Aboriginal people have for generations, but on a grander scale – and with grander consequences (see Howard Morphy’s book). Waterholes or the entrances to caves resulted where they emerged from the earth. Where they held great battles, hills resulted from their bodies and lakes formed from pools of their blood.

The ancestral beings also left a record of themselves and their actions in the form of a rich variety of art. During their epic journeys, the ancestral beings sang and performed ceremonies, made engravings or paintings on rock and in caves and left sacred objects. In northern Australia, these songs are handed from generation to generation, together with the body designs that were first painted on the chests of the ancestral beings.

Aboriginal peoples living in different parts of Australia trace their origins directly from these great ancestral beings. When present-day Aboriginal people walk through their country, they are continually reminded of the presence of the creator beings. This happens not only through the features of the landscape but also through songs, paintings and ceremonies.

The Dreaming system of beliefs and philosophy has different names depending on the language of the speaker. The Pitjantjatjara and related desert peoples call it Tjukurrpa, the Kimberley peoples call it Ngarrankrni and the Anmatyerre and related peoples call it the Altyerre.

‘Dreaming’ is often used to refer to an individual’s or group’s set of beliefs or spirituality. For instance, an Aboriginal Australian might say that they have Kangaroo Dreaming or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their ‘country’. Many artworks are visual representations of the symbols associated with the artist’s dreaming.

For examples of dreaming stories, see the excellent Web site set up by the Australian Museum at

The Alice Springs region has some significant Dreaming sites for the Caterpillar Dreaming (Yeperenye) located in the city and close by. You can visit these comfortably in one day if you stay in Alice Springs Hotels.

Valuation and Appraisal of Aboriginal Art Works

Valuation and appraisal of Aboriginal art works is a skilled and specialised activity. We receive many inquiries about the value of particular Aboriginal paintings and the way that owners might sell these works. While we will try to answer general inquiries about Aboriginal art, and about specific artists, we do not give valuations or appraisals of paintings. Appraisals and valuations are formal documents used for tax, insurance, charitable contribution, financial planning and other purposes.

We also receive inquiries about investment in Aboriginal art – see our page on Aboriginal Art Investment.

Aboriginal Art Online specialises in selling contemporary works obtained by working directly with Aboriginal communities and artists and a limited number of art galleries. We do not buy paintings on the secondary market or from other sources (such as the owners of individual paintings). While this is a completely sound and ethical practice, it is not at the moment part of our business. We prefer to work with Aboriginal communities and artists to ensure that they receive a good return for their work – and so that our clients are able to select from a wide range of work at competitive prices.

Australian Art Sales Digest Valuation Service
Australian Art Sales Digest will provide an estimate of the market value of an artwork for a fee ranging from $75 for one painting or $150 for a premium service where the value of the art work is likely to be over $5000. Estimates are made by approved valuers for the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program (see below), and are provided within 2 or 3 days. They analyse the available market data and give a price range of comparable works sold at auction by the artist.

Auction House free appraisals
Several auction houses offer a free auction appraisal service for art works. Three of the auction houses that hold auctions of Aboriginal art and that have relevant in-house specialists are:

Bonhams are planning two Aboriginal Art auctions each year, to be held in the Spring and Autumn in Sydney. Two staff (Francesca Cavazzini and Greer Adams) have been employed by Bonhams as Specialists in Charge of the Aboriginal Art Department. The department is advised by Tim Klingender (former Director of Aboriginal Art at Sotheby’s Australia). To arrange a free auction valuation with a view to selling in their auctions, first inquiries should be sent to Tim Klingender at Bonhams.
Deutscher and Hackett
Deutscher and Hackett is a leading Australian fine art auction house with a strong reputation. They have gallery and auction premises in Melbourne and Sydney where members of the public can bring works for appraisal (appointments are required).

Deutscher and Hackett hold two major auctions each year dedicated to Aboriginal art; these are accompanied by excellent catalogues. Their Head of Aboriginal Art is Crispin Gutteridge.
Menzies Art Brands
Menzies Art Brands consists of two companies, Deutscher-Menzies and Lawson-Menzies, both chaired by the Sydney businessman Rod Menzies. They claim to hold the “dominant position as Number 1 market leader in Australian art auction sales”.

Deutscher-Menzies or Lawson-Menzies offer a full range of valuation services. The most common types of valuations that people request are for insurance and auction purposes. In addition to these, the company is able to provide formal valuations for probate, capital gains tax, asset management and other purposes.

They offer a free assessment of potential auction values for various items, including Aboriginal art. For an assessment by one of their specialists, you may bring your items, or photographs of them, into their rooms in Sydney or Melbourne. An appointment is advisable. You can also contact their representatives in various parts of Australia, or seek an eValuation as an online service.

Sotheby’s Australia
Sotheby’s is one of the world’s leading art auction houses and they have established a strong reputation in the sale of Aboriginal art. Sotheby’s Australia offers auction estimates on Aboriginal art, provided that the items do not fall below their minimum consignment values. An auction estimate is a range of prices (e.g. $1,500-2,000) that Sotheby’s specialists believe a piece might bring at auction. Auction estimates are subject to change based on first hand inspection of the item.

To get an auction estimate on an item (subject to the qualification above), Sotheby’s offers the following choices:

Use their auction online valuation service. Fill out the valuation form, including details of makers’ marks, dimensions and notes of any damage and attach some good, clear digital images of the object.
Bring the item to one of Sotheby’s offices for a free appraisal (but note that not all offices will have a relevant specialist on staff). The contact in Sotheby’s Melbourne office is D’Lan Davidson.
Attend one of the regional valuation days organized by Sotheby’s Regional Office network – dates are usually advertised locally.
Sotheby’s also has experts in a range of fields, including Aboriginal art, who are able to provide appraisals and valuations. Fees are charged for a formal appraisal and valuation.

Approved Australian Government Valuers
The Australian Government has prepared a list of approved valuers for the purposes of its Cultural Gifts Program. The Web page for the Cultural Gifts Program has a link which allows you to download a current list of these approved valuers (which includes a number of people specifically approved to value Aboriginal art and artefacts).

Art, Land and the Dreaming


Art is a central part of the life of Australian aborigines and takes many forms. Traditionally it was made for purely cultural reasons and was only able to be created or viewed by people initiated to the proper level of knowledge. More recently, artwork has been made specifically for public viewing. Regardless of whether the art is for private or public purposes, for many artists their work remains inspired by the traditional marks and symbols from the Dreaming and the artist’s country.


Uluru is a landscape of profound spiritual significance for Anangu Aborigines.

The Dreaming is a term used by Aboriginal people to describe relations between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. It relates to a period before living memory or experience – a time of creator ancestors and supernatural beings. This period is called the Dreamtime. Many art works are visual representations of the symbols associated with the artist’s Dreaming.

Dreaming and the DreamtimeTraditional Symbols

Conventional designs and symbols are an essential part of the long traditions in Aboriginal art. When applied to the body of a person taking part in a ceremony or the surface of an object, these have the power to transform the object to one with religious significance. Dots are one of the conventional symbols widely used and for many non-Aboriginal people these are what give Central and Western Desert art its distinctive character.
Sand Painting
Aborigines with sand painting and body painting – from Spencer-Gillen expedition to Central Australia in 1912

Contemporary Culture and SocietyContemporary Aboriginal Culture and Society

The diversity of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures continues, despite being profoundly altered since the occupation of the continent by European invasion. It is difficult to cover the wide range of issues in contemporary culture, but some of the most important ones identified by Aboriginal representatives include:

Native Title and Land Rights
The”Stolen Generation” of children
Education and Health (coming soon)
Law and Justice (“Deaths in Custody”) (coming soon)
As background to these issues, we have also prepared a page about Australia’s Indigenous Population.

Prehistory of AustraliaAboriginal Languages

In the late eighteenth century there were between 600 and 700 Aboriginal ‘tribes’ in Australia. Each had its own territory, its own social system and laws, and its own language. Between them, they spoke between 200 and 250 separate languages. Of these, around 150 have all but disappeared and now only 20 or so are still strong and in active use in daily life. Many Aborigines are deeply concerned about the state of their languages, but pride in culture through art is helping to maintain or recover some of them.

One question often asked is what word should be used to refer to Australian indigenous people. For a discussion of this, see our page Aboriginal or Aborigines?

Further information is also available from the excellent site maintained by Matthew Ciolek about the art and culture of Australian Aborigines.

MusicAboriginal Music

Music is a powerful part of Aboriginal culture and is part of everyday life as well as being a vital part of sacred ceremonies. Traditional songs are of central importance in telling and maintaining Dreaming stories. Contemporary Aboriginal culture is also rich in music and there are exciting blends of Western and traditional sounds across a variety of styles, ranging from didjeridu music to the contemporary popular sounds of Archie Roach or Yothu Yindi.

Aboriginal LanguagesPrehistory of Australia

Aboriginal people believe that their origins lie in the Dreamtime and that they have always lived in Australia. Western archaeological evidence has, since the 1950s, rapidly accumulated evidence of human occupation of this continent for more than 40 000 years, and perhaps as long as 60 000 years.

While these accounts of Australian prehistory appear to be in conflict, this may not be as great as it first appears. The Dreaming tracks which cross the continent record the travels of ancestral beings – and in Arnhem Land or Cape York some of these tracks come from beyond Australia’s shores. Archaeologists believe similarly that the ancestors of Australian Aborigines voyaged across the sea from islands to the north – providing the earliest evidence of sea travel by modern humans.

Resale Royalty Right for Visual Artists

The Australian Government in 2007 committed to introduce a resale royalty right for visual artists. A resale royalty, also called a droit de suite, entitles an artist to receive a royalty payment from subsequent sales of his or her artwork. The government argued that Aboriginal artists in particular will benefit from this resale right.

A resale royalty for visual artists has been debated in Australia for many years, with varying levels of support. It currently exists in up to 50 other countries (estimates vary). The idea of a resale royalty for the benefit of Australia’s Indigenous artists was proposed by ATSIC in 1997 and endorsed in 1998 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

Royalty schemes in other countries vary in content and coverage. Some countries have a flat royalty rate (France and Germany) while others have a sliding scale (Belgium). Some countries have thresholds before the rate takes effect (United Kingdom) while others impose the royalty on the increased value of the artwork (Italy and Brazil). Some schemes only cover living artists (UK) while others cover the estates of artists up to 70 years after their death (France) (Source: House of Representatives Committee Report 2009).

Legislation to create a resale royalty right in Australia and to establish a statutory scheme to enforce the right and collect and distribute royalties came into force on 9 June 2010.

The Australian scheme has the following features:

  • $1000 threshold
  • 5% flat rate
  • Single collection agency
  • No upper limit
  • Does not apply to the first resale or transfer of artwork following the introduction of the scheme
  • Does not include private sales between individuals, nor organisations not in the business of dealing in works of art
  • Right continues until 70 years following the death of the artist

The resale royalty right applies to the resale of all artworks acquired after the law came into effect. Resales of existing artworks acquired after the right commenced, including works by deceased artists, are covered.

An example of the operation of the resale royalty has been given by the Commonwealth Arts Department:

In July 2011, a gallery owner negotiates with an Indigenous art centre the outright purchase of a range of works. One canvas is purchased for $10,000. The gallery owner puts the work up for sale at an exhibition in December 2011, and the canvas is purchased by an investor for $16,000. A royalty payment to the artist of $800 (less administration costs) is triggered as the gallery owner acquired the work following the introduction of the resale right.

Who benefits from the royalty?

The operation of the scheme was examined by a House of Representatives Committee before the legislation came into effect.

A number of critics claimed that the scheme will only benefit the most successful artists and their estates and there is some auction sales data to support this view.

The government relied on modelling that was based on an assumption that all works resell at least once in a 10 year period. NAVA says that the government did not test this assumption against actual sales data and that few resales occur even within a 10 year period.

The Arts Law Centre of Australia and Viscopy both maintain that the average turnover of artwork is closer to 20 years. Analysis of the last 10 years’ auction sales by Viscopy shows that, for 94% of works, the period between resales is more than a decade: of works sold by auction in 1998, only 6% had resold by 2008.

If turnover of artwork is closer to 20 years, then the exclusion of existing artwork (clause 11) at the commencement of the scheme will result in only minimal benefits to most artists.

Other benefits from the royalty scheme

John Oster of Desart commented in evidence to the inquiry that:

“There will be now be a database that will be able to track the flow of works through the market, we’ll be able to see who is buying what and what they are paying for it. It’s not going to solve every problem that exists but the fact that there is more information in the market is going to help.”

The existence of this information will not only strengthen the operation of the royalty but also will be valuable for the operation of the Indigenous Art Commercial Code of Conduct.

Response to the Report by the Government

The Australian Government responded to the report of the House of Representatives Committee in late May 2009. Some of the recommendations of the committee were accepted but not all.

The Government considered the arguments in relation to Clause 11 but decided that: “If an artwork exists on commencement…, there is no resale royalty right on the first transfer of ownership of the artwork on or after commencement, even if the transfer of ownership is under a commercial resale.”

This decision was made so that buyers of artworks are aware that a royalty may be payable if they choose to resell the work and to give the art market time to adjust to the scheme.

Another important issue was the possible exemption of the first resale under certain circumstances. The Committee report had recommended that Indigenous art centres which pay their artists up-front for their work should be exempt from the payment of the resale royalty for artwork purchased and resold within 12 months. The Government did not accept this recommendation on the grounds of administrative complexity and the fact that the $1000 threshold would eliminate many resales from qualifying for a royalty payment under the scheme.

Administration of the Resale Royalty

The Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts appointed the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) to manage the resale royalty scheme.

The scheme will provide artists with a 5% royalty on commercial resales of $1,000 or more that occur after 8 June 2010. The sale price on the commercial resale of an artwork is defined as the amount paid for the artwork by the buyer on the commercial resale including GST, but does not include any other taxes or buyer’s premium payable on the sale.

The royalty will apply to existing as well as new works, but will not apply to the first change of ownership after commencement, even if that is a resale.

CAL’s administrative fees are 10% of the royalties collected. The Agency has set up two advisory panels – one representing artists and the other representing the art trade – to ensure that the administrative processes work with current industry practices.

Sellers, buyers, auction houses, commercial galleries and art dealers are legally obliged to provide information to CAL about all commercial resales, including those that do not generate a royalty.

The information must be provided to CAL, in writing, within 90 days of the resale. It must enable CAL to work out: whether a royalty is payable on the resale; the amount of the royalty; and who is liable to pay the royalty.

CAL envisages that the data collected under the scheme will be useful for other purposes, such as provenance.

CAL has provided fact sheets for artists and for the art trade.


The resale royalty right appears to be well supported in principle on the grounds that it extends to visual artists the right to gain extended benefits in their work which already exist for other artists.

The legislation has implications for both artists and sellers of artworks. Artists need to become familiar with their rights and how the resale royalty operates. Dealers also need to be aware of their obligations.

Parties to the commercial resale of an artwork are expected to work out who will actually pay the resale royalty. Sellers, buyers and art market professionals are jointly and severally liable to pay the royalty, so it is important that buyers and sellers clearly record any agreement for the liability of payment of the royalty and that the collecting society CAL is notified each time a work is sold on the secondary market.

It appears that most Aboriginal artists are unlikely to gain much financial benefit from the scheme, apart from a very small number of the most successful artists or their estates, and there is some concern about the commercial impact of the scheme on some community-owned art centres.

On the other hand, the requirement for better and more transparent recording of initial and subsequent sale prices should be useful in supporting the operation of the Indigenous Art Code of Conduct.

Aboriginal Art Market and Prices

The market for Australian Aboriginal art is significant and has grown rapidly over the last 30 years. While this has primarily been driven by the interest of art lovers and collectors, over the last decade or more there has been increasing interest in investment in Aboriginal art. For discussion of investment issues, see our page on Aboriginal art investment.

Size of the Aboriginal Art Industry

It is very difficult to estimate the size of the market for indigenous visual art. The difficulties arise not only from basic problems of definition (what is included? what is excluded?) but also from practical problems of measurement, survey and data analysis. As a result, estimates of the size of the industry – in terms of value of production and number of artists – are highly variable.

Professor Jon Altman at the Australian National University has described the definition problems in these terms: “… what measures should be used to estimate size and scale? Dollars returns to artists is problematic because the size of the sector is understated while overall Indigenous art turnover is equally problematic because much of the value added accrues to non-Indigenous people owing to the number of functional levels in different parts of the industry. This is most clearly evident when art from a remote community is marketed through a commercial gallery in a southern city.” (senate Inquiry Submission 2007)

The Cultural Industry Strategy developed by ATSIC in 1997 gave an estimate (but without clear basis) of an annual total value of about $200 million for the industry. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimated the value of commercial sales of Aboriginal art at $36 million but this has been challenged by Professor Altman as being a probable underestimate (Altman 2001).

Professor Altman estimated in 2002 that the value of the Aboriginal art market is probably somewhere between $100 million and $300 million (including manufactured product). The more conservative estimate is based on the commercial galleries survey (ABS Survey 8651.0 2001) and the less conservative estimate on adding to and updating surveys of international visitors and domestic consumers undertaken in 1997. There is almost no data on Indigenous arts exports either purchased in Australia or exported for international sale.

Given that there have been significant increases in sales of Indigenous art since 2002 it is reasonable to regard a figure of $200-300 million as a conservative estimate. Offsetting the increase since that time is the apparent decline reported by some galleries and art centres since the global financial crisis in 2007.

A figure of 5,000 to 6,000 Indigenous visual artists has been used for the past 15 years “based on a mix of rigorous quantification from community-based art centre data bases to very arbitrary estimates of urban-based practicising Indigenous artists” (Altman 2002). The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) in 2002 suggested that there may be over 13,000 paid Indigenous visual artists. However this estimate conflicts with the official 2001 Census that indicated only 1,500 Indigenous people were employed in creative arts occupations.

A more detailed discussion of the Indigenous visual arts industry is given in the paper “Some competition and consumer issues in the Indigenous visual arts industry” by J. C. Altman, B.H. Hunter, S. Ward and F. Wright (ACCC Discussion Paper No. 235/2002).

Changes in the Art Market

While most people buy Indigenous art because they love the image and its cultural connections, many buyers are also interested in the possibility that their purchase might over time turn out be a good investment.

However art is generally a long term investment and most paintings do not increase in value. It is important to keep this in mind when buying an art work. If you are buying for investment it is essential that you keep yourself informed and seek advice from galleries and perhaps a professional art investment adviser who is qualified to give financial investment advice. For more information see our page on Aboriginal art investment.

There are two main sources of information about changes in the overall Australian art market, including for Aboriginal art. These are the Australian Art Market Movements Handbook by Roger Dedman and the Australian Art Sales Digest run by John Furphy which lists and analyzes the results of Australian art auctions.

The following figure shows the changes in total Australian auction sales for different artist groupings over the last 15 years (based on data from the Australian Art Sales Digest Web site):

Australian art auction sales for last 15 years

The sharp downturn after the global financial crisis in late 2007 is obvious. Aboriginal art sales in total since 2000 had tended to equal or outperform the overall auction sales total.

A recent edition of the Australian Art Market Movements Handbook contains a discussion of Australian art as an investment. Dr Dedman comments:

The general conclusion … is that, over an extended period of time, investment in art can produce returns of around 10% per annum, making it comparable to other more traditional forms of investment. On the down side, buying and selling commissions are much more substantial for works of art than they are for shares or property. The effect of these commissions is lessened if the artwork is held for a longer period of time, and this makes art essentially a long-term investment − at least five years and preferably ten.

Since 1995, the Art Market Index has increased by a factor of 3.12, which is equivalent to an increase of 8.5% per annum compounded, or a real rate of return of 5.2%. On the surface of it, this seems to be quite a satisfactory investment, especially if you count as part of the return the aesthetic pleasure it would have afforded.

However, Dr Dedman notes that there are other factors not included in this analysis (such as the higher selling costs, storage, insurance, etc) which reduce the relative attractiveness of art as an investment. All of these factors need to be considered, in addition to the prospects of individual artists and particular works, which is why art investment advice is a specialized field.

He concludes his analysis on a cheerful note:

..a more positive approach to investment in art is justifiable. Carefully chosen Australian paintings, bought now at auction with the intention of holding them for at least five years, and preferably ten, can confidently be expected to produce a satisfactory rate of return when viewed purely as an investment. The bonus now comes from the pleasure that owning them bestows − and who can put a value on that?

Prices for Aboriginal Art.

Once you decide which regions you are interested in, and have identified a selection of artists, you will soon need some information on the average price for paintings or prints by particular artists.

By far the best source for data on the price of paintings by Australian artists (including Aboriginal artists) is the online database Australian Art Sales Digest. The service costs AUD $30.00 for one month’s subscription for online access, or you can take out a one year subscription for $255.

Sotheby’s and other auction houses hold auctions either entirely of Aboriginal art or with large numbers of works, and the catalogues for these auctions are a valuable source of information about prices, provenance and other data. The more recent sales results are available free online on their web sites. However, these data are only for the last few years, whereas Australian Art Sales Digest goes back more than 30 years and is much more comprehensive and easier to search.