Albert Namatjira’s work reaches new heights in the art market as demand increases

In the 1950s, Albert Namatjira’s iconic watercolors often sold on the streets of Alice Springs for just a few shillings.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article may contain images of deceased persons.

Over the years and after his death in 1959, his paintings of the vast Central Australian landscape became highly sought after, with collectors around the world clamoring to own some of his work.

Now there has been a resurgence of interest in the Arrernte artist and father of the Hermannsburg school with his work setting new records.

Namatjira’s Glen Helen Gorge on paper fetched over $120,000 when it went under the hammer in Melbourne earlier this year.

In July, his painting The Granseur – Mount Sonda sold in Adelaide for $54,000, an unprecedented price nearly $10,000 above expectations.

Albert Namatjira was a pioneer of the Hermannsburg school of painting.(Provided: Northern Territory Library)

“Namatjira’s work doesn’t appear very often, but these works…provide enormous value,” said Jim Elder, auctioneer and owner at Elder Fine Art in Adelaide.

“I don’t think the people of Alice Springs would know what really happened to her job.

“He should be taken a lot more seriously and I think that’s when people realize what an important artist he really is.”

Born and raised in the remote Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, southwest of Alice Springs, Namatjira learned the art of watercolor while visiting European artist Rex Battarbee and was greatly encouraged by the local pastor.

His status quickly grew in Australia and he became the first Aboriginal person to obtain full citizenship, which allowed him to vote and buy alcohol in 1957.

A Christmas card with a watercolor of a landscape
A 1954 Christmas card with illustrations by Albert Namatjira.(Provided)

Mr Elder said the wider Australian art market has been enjoying a surge of momentum lately, but Namatjira’s work has far outpaced the market trend.

“What’s driving all of this is availability, naturally, and people are more aware of this artist’s actual position in Australian art history,” he said.

“We wonder today, if Namatjira had not come and if Rex Battarbee had not come to discover it, this whole school of painting would not have existed.

“We owe a debt, a great debt, to people like Albert Namatjira, Rex Battarbee and the Hermannsburg School of Artists.”

Legacy paves the way for others

Selma Coulthard was just a small child when Albert Namatjira died.

She doesn’t remember much of her funeral, but said seeing her artwork left her in no doubt what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Now an accomplished artist at the Namatjira School of Art in Central Australia, Ms Coulthard has spent the past three decades pursuing the artistic movement that Namatjira first inspired in Hermannsburg all those years ago.

“We tried to revive his image,” she said.

“Some people don’t remember him because most of his kids are gone, so we’re the parents carrying on his work and talking about his life here.”

A woman sits next to her watercolor painting in progress
Selma Coulthard has been painting for over 30 years.(ABC Alice Springs: Lee Robinson)

She said Namatjira, widely regarded as the most famous Indigenous Australian of his generation, has always maintained his connection to his family and his country.

“His connection was with the whole family tribe. Whoever it was, it was called family,” she said.

“He was a really famous person and his spirit was always there because he loved to paint.

“He was writing what he saw, and it showed, because his love for his country – the land too – was there in the paintings he made.”

After a decades-long struggle, the copyright to Namatjira’s work was returned to his family in 2017 after it was sold by the public trustee in 1983 for $8,500.

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