Rare Rover Thomas owl heads all-star line-up for Indigenous art sale

Gabriella Coslovich, Australian Financial Review, 16 March 2022

A rare Rover Thomas owl painting is the prize lot in Deutscher and Hackett’s first Australian Aboriginal art auction of the year, in a sale that also features impressive works by key artists including Emily Kame Kgnwarreye, Sally Gabori, Albert Namatjira and Ginger Riley.

Rover Thomas, the leading light of the East Kimberley art movement, is best known for his abstract renditions of country in bold, graphic, ochre paintings. It was uncommon for Thomas to paint figuratively, and one of the few subjects that he did represent in a naturalistic way is the Ancestral Owl, a central figure in Kimberley cosmology that has a connection to the Wanjina beings.

Thomas’s Tumbi (Owl), 1989, is a strangely mesmerising work and to Western eyes might evoke a Madonna or a nun. While these associations have little to do with the work, the painting is imbued with a reverential dimension. As Thomas expert Kim Akerman explains in the auction catalogue: “the owl is framed or enclosed by what could be a tree hollow, which visually functions as an enclosure or niche to hold a revered figure”.

Provenance is critical when assessing Thomas’s work, and especially so for his owl paintings, of which there are only about 10 significant examples. Problematic examples have appeared on the market.

While paintings sourced via Thomas’s first dealer, Mary Macha, and the Waringarri Aboriginal Arts centre, are considered the most reliable provenance for the artist, that’s not to say that only works from these sources are legitimate. But when works arise from other sources, they need to be backed up by verifiable records.

“This has a traceable history,” says Deutscher and Hackett’s Head of Aboriginal Art, Crispin Gutteridge. “It hasn’t just appeared on the market from nowhere.”

Gaps in provenance need to be accounted for, as the National Museum of Australia is finding after several Thomas experts questioned the provenance of the painting, Jabanunga aka Goorialla (Rainbow Serpent), 1996, which was donated to the museum by Melbourne arts patron Michael Blanche, and valued at the record-breaking price of $1.2 million.

Thumbi (Owl) was commissioned by Professor Stephen Muecke, a linguist and co-author of the book Reading the CountryAn Introduction to Nomadology, published in 1984 with a related exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre that year. One of Muecke’s co-authors, the Moroccan-born artist Krim Benterrak, who lived in the Kimberley region from 1986 to 1990, commissioned the Thumbi (Owl) from Thomas on Muecke’s behalf. The painting was later acquired by conservationist Martin Copley, the founder of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and was exhibited at Sydney Contemporary in 2013.

“Because it has been exhibited, because it has a definite history, it’s not something that we would refuse,” Gutteridge said. “It’s such a beautiful painting. If we had any doubts, we would not have consigned it.”

The painting last came up for auction in 2017, when it sold at Mossgreen for $204,600 (including buyer’s costs), against an estimate of $150,000 to $200,000. Deutscher and Hackett have updated the estimate to $200,000 to $300,000.