A beginner’s guide to buying Indigenous art

Living Well | Words: Blanche Clark | Photos: Christian Capurro | Posted on 30 October 2020

When buying Indigenous art, it is important to buy ethically. Here’s how.

When Vincent Namatjira was announced as the first Indigenous artist to win the Archibald Prize with his portrait of Adam Goodes in September, it put the beauty and diversity of Indigenous art firmly in the national spotlight. But if you’re considering buying Indigenous art for your own home, it’s important to make sure it not only looks good, but also that it is good. 

So, to celebrate NAIDOC Week (8 to 15 November), we ask RACV’s visual arts curator Ellen Wignell for her top tips on buying Indigenous art.

Mark Nodea, Gija, My Mother’s Country, 2019, natural ochre and pigments on canvas, 90 x 120cm. Courtesy the artist and Warmun Art Centre. Photographer Christian Capurro, RACV Art Collection.
Mr R Peters, Gija, Wirrindiny-bawu-ngarri-wanema, 2002, natural ochre on canvas, 122 x 135cm. Courtesy the artists’ estate and Warmun Art Centre. Photographer Christian Capurro, RACV Art Collection.

Above left: Mark Nodea, Gija, My Mother’s Country, 2019, natural ochre and pigments on canvas, 90 x 120cm. Courtesy the artist and Warmun Art Centre. Photographer Christian Capurro, RACV Art Collection. Above right: Mr R Peters, Gija, Wirrindiny-bawu-ngarri-wanema, 2002, natural ochre on canvas, 122 x 135cm. Courtesy the artist’s estate and Warmun Art Centre. Photographer Christian Capurro, RACV Art Collection. Below: Billy Benn Perrurle, Alyawarr, Big Mountain, Harts Range, 2011, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 91 x 122cm.  © Billy Benn Perrurle/Copyright Agency, 2020. Photographer Christian Capurro, RACV Art Collection.


How to buy Indigenous art, responsibly


The sale of Indigenous art is an important source of income for some Indigenous communities and their artists, says Ellen. Yet the Arts Law Centre of Australia estimates that 80 per cent of Indigenous artworks and craft sold in Australian shops is fake. This not only exploits Indigenous culture but deprives their communities of income. 

“When buying Indigenous art, it is important to buy ethically,” says Ellen. “This will protect your investment, ensure the artwork is authentic and valued correctly, and demonstrate respect for the world’s oldest continuing living culture.”

Buying art responsibly is also a way of connecting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and supporting their communities. 

While some Indigenous artworks can sell for more than a million dollars at auction, there’s still plenty of affordable art that you can buy through Indigenous art centres across Australia. Ellen says the RACV Art Collection database, which includes the works of 80 Indigenous artists, is a great place to start exploring the breadth of Indigenous artwork. 

When it comes to buying your own piece, Ellen says it’s important to check if an art centre or dealer is a signatory of the Indigenous Art Code, a system that was introduced in 2010 to ensure artists and those around them are paid fairly. 

Take the time to research the centres and their communities as you discover new favourite artists.


Ellen says buying directly from an Indigenous art centre adds certainty, as these centres are community-based enterprises that are owned and governed by Aboriginal people and provide economic, social and cultural benefits. This is the case for Warmun Art Centre in the eastern Kimberley region, the source of more than 15 artworks in the RACV collection. You can find out exactly how each centre is run by visiting their individual websites. 

“Take the time to research the centres and their communities as you discover new favourite artists,” says Ellen. 

Art fairs offer another way of checking the authenticity of Indigenous art and finding ethical art centres and galleries. “Grouping together galleries from across Australia, they are the perfect one-stop shop to browse, learn and purchase. The Darwin Art Fair is fantastic, as is the Cairns Art Fair and Tarnanthi Art Fair in Adelaide,” she says. 

If you decide to go directly to a city art gallery or dealer, check if they are known for working with Indigenous artists and ask them the Indigenous Art Code’s recommended questions (listed below). “Celebrating Indigenous culture through authentic and ethically sourced art is not hard but does require scratching the surface,” Ellen says.  

She also suggests keeping an eye on the thriving Indigenous fashion and design industry, with the First Nations Fashion Council launched in March to facilitate the growth of First Nations involvement in the fashion sector. “Indigenous fashion is often synonymous with sustainable fashion and this can be explored through the Instagram account @ausindigenousfashion,” she says. 

Bendigo Art Gallery’s exhibition Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion runs until 29 November. 

The Indigenous Art Code recommends you ask an art dealer these five questions:

  • Who is the artist? 
  • Where is the artist from? 
  • How did you get the artwork or product in your art centre, gallery or shop? 
  • How was the artist paid for their work? 
  • If it is a reproduction of an artist's work, how are royalties or licensing fees paid to the artist?