An Australian crowdfunding campaign is seeking to secure the return of two previously unknown works by one of the most significant Australian Aboriginal figures of the 19th century, William Barak (c. 1824-1903). Consigned to Sotheby’s New York, the works are estimated to sell for in excess of USD$425,000 (£340,000).
As a first inhabitant of present-day Melbourne, Barak experienced the destruction of his traditional way of life by colonising white settlers. He produced 52 paintings in his lifetime, possibly more. Art historian Nikita Vanderbyl said the artist “used his artwork to preserve cultural practices and knowledge.”
The Melbourne-based Wurundjeri Corporation are now racing against the clock to crowdfund $175,000 (£140,000). However, the corporation has been advised that as much as $1,000,000 (£799,000) may be needed to purchase the recently discovered artworks. Both made in 1897, Corroboree depicts women in possum skin cloaks in ochre and charcoal and Parrying Shield is a hardwood shield engraved with traditional patterns.
They resurfaced in Geneva in 2017, following the death of Pascal de Pury, the great grandson of Barak’s neighbour at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, Jules de Pury, who was part of a Swiss wine-growing dynasty. Sotheby’s are auctioning the works during Marquee month alongside pieces from the Steve Martin and Anne Stringfield collection, the estate of James Wolfensohn and The Thomas Vroom collection.
A spokesperson for Sotheby’s defended the decision to sell Barak’s works, stating that “as a leader, diplomat, and advocate for his people, Barak forged many close relationships beyond his immediate community, and these works embody that spirit of cultural dialogue and the preservation of their cultural history.”
Yet the Australian Aboriginal community have condemned the sale. Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, a descendant of Barak, believes that “Aboriginal cultural lore has been breached” since the works were entrusted to the De Pury family “in exchange for cultural knowledge and safety of their place on Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung country”. In April, the Wurundjeri Corporation appealed to Victoria’s Aboriginal affairs minister, Gabrielle Williams, for assistance in bringing the artworks home, but no further action has been taken.
Sandra de Pury, who still owns and operates the wine estate in the Yarra Valley her ancestors established, said the European-based de Purys had not contacted her about the Barak works. “We would love to see them come back to Australia,” she explained. “But short of donating to GoFundMe, which I fully intend to do, it’s a substantial amount of money.”
The European-based de Pury family have previously donated works from their collection to the Musée d’Ethnographie Neuchâtel in Switzerland, a museum housed in a building bequeathed by James-Ferdinand de Pury (1823-1902) in 1904.