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How to Buy Indigenous Art Ethically

Posted by Connor Liddelow on
How to Buy Indigenous Art Ethically

It is important to buy from a trusted dealer to ensure that you get a genuine piece of art, and that the artist is compensated.


For novice buyers, the Indigenous art market can be confusing and overwhelming. There are so many galleries that sell art. Where do you start? How can you tell a trustworthy seller from a dishonest one? How can you tell if your purchase supports the artist? 

As trusted art dealers, at Creative Native we have put together this guide that suggests some places to buy Indigenous artwork, as well as things to be aware of when buying. 

These tips are mostly about art from remote regions - which historically has been favoured by opportunists who don't care about ethics - and not art by urban artists, who often work alone through commercial galleries. These tips also pertain to art that is sold on the primary market where artists receive compensation for their work.


Why Buying Ethically is Important


Art sales are the main source of income for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Making sure you buy ethically isn’t just about protecting your investment, but also about respecting the oldest living culture in the world. It’s about making sure artists and their families are compensated fairly, and securing a sustainable future of Australia's Indigenous arts industry.


Ask Questions


No matter if you are buying from a Perth artist centre, gallery, dealer, auction, or art fair, do not be afraid to ask questions. Ask more if you aren't satisfied with the answers.

These are the key questions that every buyer needs to ask:

  1. Who is the artist?
  2. Where is the artist from?
  3. How did the artwork or product get to your gallery or shop?
  4. How much was the artist paid?
  5. What are the royalties or licensing fees for reproductions of artist's works?
  6. How many years has your gallery been in existence? 
  7. Is your gallery a member the Indigenous Art Code?If it is, then you are aware that it has committed to following the Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct?

Many dealers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork have high ethical standards and feel a sense of responsibility for Indigenous artists and their communities. Many dealers have signed the Indigenous Art Code, and they display our logo on their premises as well as in marketing materials. All buyers are encouraged to search for the logo wherever and whenever they purchase Indigenous art. 

The Indigenous Art Code was created because unfortunately, some people who sell Aboriginal art (and false Aboriginal art) don't respect Indigenous culture or the well-being of artists and communities. 


The Unique Relationship Between Artist and Buyer


The importance of provenance in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork is paramount. A piece of Aboriginal art's origin and history is its passport and birth certificate. These documents provide proof of authenticity and ethical practices in the value chain.

Many artists live far from their art centres and galleries, which has created an unbalanced relationship between buyer and artist. This inequity can be balanced by a moral compass and a commitment to ethical trade from both buyers and sellers.

If Aboriginal art in Perth is sold without these values, the relationship between buyer/artist is just a financial transaction. It is devoid of any connection to the artist's cultural heritage or cultural universe. For many, this is what attracted them to Aboriginal artwork in Perth in the first instance. For an exchange to be both conscientious and conscious, there must be an immutable reciprocity between the buyer's and artist's interests.

For legal and financial reasons, it is important to do the right thing. Unethical dealers frequently violate the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 taxation laws, Fair Trade and Code of Conduct rules. This legislation was written and enforced to protect sellers and buyers of all goods and services. Unfair practices can lead to buyers being complicit in violating the law by turning a blind eye.


Buying from a Gallery


Different sizes and types of galleries sell Aboriginal art, from tourist shops to high-end city dealers.

No matter the gallery size, these three questions can help ensure that you're buying ethically. All dealers who are trustworthy will be happy to answer these questions.


Are you a specialist in Aboriginal art?


A warning sign can sometimes be one or two pieces among other souvenirs or art.


How long has your gallery been around?


If they suddenly appeared, where were they before? And how long are they planning on staying?


Is your gallery a member the Indigenous Art Code


If it answered yes, then you know that the company has signed and adhered to the Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct.

Ethical dealers or galleries will also be able and willing to answer any questions you may have in the following areas:

  • The artist - his or her other work, history & community.
  • The art centre - where is it? How long have they been working with the gallery? Is the art centre the only place where the artist works?
  • How does the gallery source its artwork and how much does it pay artists?
  • How much of the sale price goes to the artists?

Artists and buyers have the right to ask about the financial story behind their artwork. Ethical dealers are usually open about the business models they use. Many dealers get their work on consignment from art centres and then pay a fixed percentage to the centres when they sell it. Dealers may pay an artist a fair price upfront. This price is a percentage from the expected retail price. 

Some dealers are shady and pay artists a small sum upfront. They often exploit artists, leaving them in vulnerable positions. Then they charge high prices for the work. Although this is legal, the Indigenous Art Code does NOT consider this an ethical practice. Artists are sometimes not provided with honest information about their true market value.


Trust your instincts. You should not be surprised if the gallery owner is vague about the provenance of the artwork or their relationship to the artist.

These are the warning signs that often identify unethical practices:

  • A collection of unrelated works assembled regardless of theme, culture, language or region.
  • Merchandise such as bags, scarves and jewellery that are made overseas. It does not attribute any artist. An ethical bone China cup made overseas and licensed fairly by the artist is one that has been manufactured. A bone China cup that has not been licensed by an Aboriginal artist and manufactured in China is illegal. See Fake Art Harms Cultural.
  • Do you think the gallery will 'do deals'? Ethical galleries typically work to a fixed price with a steady percentage of the proceeds going back to artists and the art centre. A discount offered to close the sale could be cause for concern.
  • Do you think the gallery will try to prove artworks' provenance using photos of artists, and not official authentication certificates?


Buying from and Art Centre


An official certificate from the art centre will be issued to any piece of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artwork that exceeds A$250 when it is purchased from an art centre (or gallery that sources art directly from art centres). You should insist to see it if you are a buyer.

These certificates are issued under the Resale Royalty Scheme or the Indigenous Art Code of Conduct and provide buyers with high levels of assurance in the provenance of the artist and fair payment.

But certificates are not absolute guarantees. Certificates can also be issued for artworks where artists were unfairly or badly treated.

Buying direct from art centres in Perth adds security, since they are legally formed, non-profit cooperatives that are owned and managed by artists and their communities.


Buying Direct From and Artist


Many Indigenous artists in Australia sell their work directly. While some artists may sell their work directly on the streets, others have studios that you can visit. Some will also sell from their websites. Do not bargain with artists who are selling their work. Be respectful and know that this is their livelihood. Individual artists selling their work are not considered dealers, so the Code does not apply to them.


Tips from Creative Native for Buying Indigenous Art


  • Do your homework and, if you are unsure, speak to Creative Native or to other reputable dealers who are signatories of the Indigenous artwork code.
  • Keep in mind that there are times when unethical activities end up online or in mass-sales in community halls.
  • Beware of fakes: If you are going to spend a lot of money on work, it is important that you do your research. Ask for photos of the artist who created the work.

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