What is Ethical Buying? Ethics is the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong (Encyclopedia Britannica 2008).
Ethical behaviour is behaviour that meets a set of values or principles. It is characterized by honesty, fairness and equity in dealings with other people and respects their dignity and rights.
So buying Aboriginal art ethically is all about setting standards of your own behaviour when buying art.
Many professions and industries have codes of conduct based on standards of ethical behaviour (e.g. journalists, lawyers, health workers). These can be enforceable or non-enforceable to various degrees (by moral pressure, by complaints processes or by law).
So far there is no formal code of practice for the Aboriginal art market but there are moves to develop one (see below).
Buying Aboriginal art
The relationship between artist and buyer can be direct or else through a chain of one or more intermediaries including community art centre, dealers, galleries and auction houses.
As the buyer, you can choose to set your own ethical standards and to ask questions about the ethical standards of others in the buying chain.
Consumer activism is spreading, whether in relation to child labour, environmental impacts, testing on animals or fair trade in products such as coffee.
Buyers of Indigenous art are increasingly asking questions about the way that the art works are sourced and the fairness of the treatment of artists.
Examples of Unethical Behaviour
Examples of unethical behaviour by buyers, dealers and galleries include:
- Exploiting artist poverty by buying art unreasonably cheaply
- Producing forgeries and fakes
- Knowingly buying fakes and forgeries
- Passing off art painted by non-Indigenous artists as painted by Indigenous artists
- Forcing Indigenous artists to sign their names to works not created by them
- Falsifying or providing incorrect authentication and provenance information.
The Trade Practices Act 1974 places a limit on the relationship between dealers and artists – in particular it prohibits unconscionable conduct between people in a business relationship.
Unconscionable conduct is generally defined as conduct so unreasonable that it goes against good conscience. This is discussed in the ACCC guide “Unconscionable conduct in the Indigenous art and craft sector”.
Codes of Practice in the Indigenous Art Market
The Australian Indigenous Art Trade Association (ArtTrade) has a Code of Ethics and Code of Business Practice in relation to the behaviour of its members.
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association also has a Code of Ethics and Code of Practice for its members.
However these two Associations only cover a minority by number of galleries and dealers.
Public concern about unethical practices over the last decade or more has led the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), Desart and ANKAAA to develop a draft Indigenous Art Commercial Code of Conduct with the aim of covering many more participants in the industry.
The draft industry Code aimed to promote practices which support Indigenous artists, their culture and communities and which ensure a fair economic return to the artists.
Further development of this industry-developed code was taken over by the Australia Council for the Arts and a revised and restructured draft Code was issued for public comment in December 2008.
The Code was finalized and announced as a voluntary industry code enforceable under the Trade Practices Act in October 2009. For more information about the Code, see our page about the Aboriginal art Code of Conduct.
Relationship between Artist and Buyer
Ethical buying of Aboriginal art means buying art works from galleries or dealers who act ethically – or if dealing directly with the artist ensuring that your own behaviour is ethical.
By your actions as a buyer you can strengthen the ethics of the chain linking back to the artist – or you can undermine them.
By asking questions about the actions of the gallery or dealer you can form your own view whether the artist has been fairly paid and treated when producing the work.
If buying directly from the artist, you should examine your own conscience and act with personal integrity and fairness.
In the end, though, there is only so much that codes of conduct, regulations and enforcement can do. In the unruly market place of online auctions such as eBay, great care is needed.
Buyer – beware!
Questions to Ask when Buying Aboriginal Art
- Is the art work authentic (made by the person stated as the artist)?
- Is it properly documented (such as by a certificate of authenticity from a reputable source, photographs or other evidence)?
- What is the history (provenance) of the work? Where and when was it made? How has it come onto the market?
- Does the art work come from a reputable source?
- If buying direct from the artist, are you paying a fair price for the work?
- If buying from a gallery or dealer, are they a member of the Australian Indigenous Art Trade Association or the Australian Commercial Galleries Association?
- Does the business have a code of conduct for its operation and its dealings with artists?
- Does it subscribe to the ethics of a professional organization (such as the Art.Trade Code of Ethics)?
- What is the reputation or profile of the artist?
- How does the art work compare in quality with other works by the same artist?
- Would it be possible to re-sell the art work, either with the current seller or at auction?