EARTH’S CREATION – Why I sold for $2 million

Earth’s Creation by Emily Kame Kngwarreye no longer belongs to Mbantua Gallery.  On November 16th, 2017 we sold it at auction for $2 million.

On the face of it you would think that I’d be happy wouldn’t you?   But I wasn’t!  In fact, I was very disappointed – for many reasons..  If I was so disappointed, then why did I say “the painting is on the market” when the bidding reached $2 million?  I’ll attempt to explain my reasoning in as simple a manner as I can..

Firstly, I had approached the auction with two independent valuations – one for $4 million and one for $3 million.   Of course, valuations are not guarantees, but Earth’s Creation had been exhibited in the Venice Art Biennale after those valuations had been made so I thought it reasonable that the painting had the potential of reaching $3 million, if not $4 million!

I had been thinking of the sale of Earth’s Creation for a year or two before it went to auction.  During this time, I had many thoughts about what I wanted to do with the proceeds of the sale.  Eventually I decided on 3 sizeable donations to charities, after business debt was paid off.

The first donation was to the Mbantua Foundation.  The Mbantua Foundation is a tax deductible foundation I put together a number of years ago that is designed to put together sustainable projects for destitute and under privileged aboriginal people here in Central Australia.  Unfortunately, it has been fairly idle over the past few years.  In part, because of the flow on effects of the global financial crisis and also that I have never really attempted to source outside funds (apart from two friends who donated $25,000 each a few years ago).   However, recently I have been in the process of ramping this up.

I have for many years wanted to employ a full-time sports officer in Utopia.  In the last few months of the CLP Government in the NT, I had negotiated with the then Chief Minister, Adam Giles, that should I sell Earth’s Creation for $3.75 million the government would match $1 for $1 what Mbantua Gallery would donate over a 5 year period (this was obtained in writing).  Mbantua Gallery’s intention was $50,000 each year, throw in the matching $50,000 from the NT Government, and we have $100,000 per annum for 5 years.  (There has since been a change of government, but I would be surprised if the new Labor government wouldn’t honour that agreement).

We are also currently in the process of building a website for the Mbantua Foundation.  We have never had one before as we have generally relied on donations from Mbantua Gallery.  These have so far totalled approximately $251,000 over the years (recent figures from our accountant).  We are also setting a new direction for the Foundation (albeit with some old and established ideas) for a number of projects that need to be set up and gotten underway in some capacity.  I intend to set them up as independent projects but all under the Mbantua Foundation umbrella.

The second donation was to be to Ars Musica.  Ars Musica is the dream and creation of a very good friend of mine, Reverend Arthur Bridge AM of Sydney.  On many occasions over the years he and one of his Board members, (an ex Chair of the Sydney Opera House),  travelled with me on various art trips to Utopia.  It is a foundation set up to award scholarships to kids who have musical/theatrical talents but lack financial capacity to pursue those talents.  Father Arthur was, of course, privy to my intentions of donating to his Foundation.  Unfortunately, he was in hospital over the auction period but we had many text messages throughout which have been quite humorous (if he agrees, I will consider putting them on Facebook as humour has to be an important part of our lives…)

The third donation was to be to a yet undecided Children’s Cancer charity.  My heart (no doubt like all you) always goes out to kids who have cancer.

Mbantua Gallery had a business debt of just under $3 million.  This is almost entirely on the acquisition of artworks.

I had instructed our accountant that should we sell Earths Creation for $3.75million we would donate $250,000 to the Mbantua Foundation, $250,000 to Ars Musica and $250,000 to a Children’s Cancer hospital/charity.  If the amount should be less than $3.75million the donations would decrease pro rata to $3 million.  Should it sell for $3,000,000 or under, unfortunately the charities were to miss out.  I deemed it necessary for us to address the tax bill and our business debt first, leaving our business in a manageable position going forward.

So my disappointment in the $2 million sale figure is that now none of these donations are able to happen.

From the perspective of the actual painting – I was personally very disappointed that it didn’t remain in Australia.   I was certainly supportive of Adrian Newstead obtaining an export permit, and my reasoning for this was purely that I hoped it would increase bidding, which hopefully would then have enabled me to accomplish my goals as outlined earlier.

Earth’s Creation is a magnificent work in itself – and when the cultural background and life of Emily is factored in, it really should be sitting in the National Gallery of Australia or at the very least, a State Gallery.

Earth's Creation
Me with the magnificent Earth’s Creation by Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Putting aside my personal wants and desires, I am disappointed that those who have the financial capacity and love of Australian art and heritage, didn’t bid and secure it for Australia.  Or that a government didn’t have some involvement to secure it, because this particular painting is so iconic to Australia.    I say this emphasising the word disappointment rather than critical, because maybe it is just a few of us who treasure the importance of the painting.

So why did I allow it to be “on the market” at $2 million?

  • I was certainly hoping that some good bidding would get underway! If I had have known that $2 million was going to be the last bid, I probably would not have done so!
  • I have responsibility to my 20 or so staff members and a very large team of artists. That responsibility is to ensure that Mbantua Gallery continues to support, encourage and promote the art of the Utopia region.   In this unstable economic climate, reducing debt in the business was the smart thing to do to enable us to keep our responsibilities.  If I had kept the painting, I would have then had to continue to pay out our $20,000 insurance premium per annum, and service the bank interest for a number of years to come.
  • Mbantua Gallery has downsized its space over the last few years which has left me no room to display it. It shouldn’t be locked up in storage but needs to be made available for public viewing.
  • Lastly, it was time to be in someone else’s hands. Someone who hopefully will ensure that it is appreciated to the utmost.  So congratulations to Tim Olsen, the new owner.

From the financial view of Mbantua Gallery – after all of our insurances, bank interests and commissions are deducted, we’ll pretty well break even or be a touch in front.

I’ve really enjoyed the experience and the ride of owning Earth’s Creation.  100% of the comments that have been made to me personally over the 10 years that we have owned it have been extremely positive.  So thank you to everyone who appreciated us for “having a go”.

Once again, I thank everyone who has supported myself and my gallery over the years.  It is my intention to continue to work with and to encourage the artists of Utopia for many years to come – God willing.

Lastly, if there are any philanthropists reading this who would be interested in knowing more about our Mbantua Foundation, or getting involved financially or otherwise, please get in contact with me. And don’t forget Ars Musica Foundation – Father Arthur would also love to hear from you and he can be contacted on 0411 289 954.

Regards to all.



Emily Kame Kngwarreye – Early Days

Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Emily Kame Kngwarreye

There’s been much written on Emily Kame Kngwarreye – a number of books in fact.  Her works have been exhibited all over the world! Compared alongside Monet! A genius!

I knew Emily before she ever became famous, way back in 1986/87.  We gave her  two pieces of canvas, around the 90 x 90cm size, when we were in the early stages of collecting paintings ourselves.  The paintings came back with some basic women U shapes and digging sticks.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  We sold one for a very modest price (probably around the $300 mark) and for some inexplicable reason I decided to keep the other – and I still have it! It is one of Emily’s very first paintings on canvas and is now in the Mbantua permanent collection.  I have no recollection of ever seeing another Emily painting with symbols in them.

Emily Kame Kngwarrye - MB000412
Emily Kame Kngwarreye – MB000412

During this period in time my main focus was my business – Mbantua Store.  Art was a side interest as the running of the business was 12 hours a day and I also had a very young, growing family.

Barbara Weir, who had become a good friend during that era, used to tell me all the time to get Emily to paint for us but I resisted for quite some time because of other work demands and I honestly had little appreciation for the paintings. I was very much old school – I liked neat and tidy dot work or landscapes – and I didn’t change overnight even though Barbara finally convinced me to buy paintings from Emily and I also had a wholesale market for them.

I can’t quite pin point the time I changed but it was a few years later, after Barbara had regularly told me that the paintings represented everything, that my daughter Dale Jennings and I got together and started staring into the paintings and questioned each other as to what we saw.  That was the beginning of my comprehension!  (Yes, I am a bit slow at times, I know!).  And shortly after that I was with a fairly prominent art journalist looking at a couple of Emily paintings that were lack-lustre browns, blacks and creams (and this journalist said words to the effect of ‘Emily did paint some pretty ordinary works at times!’).

Emily Kame Kngwarreye - MB007739
Emily Kame Kngwarreye with painting MB007739

This was something that I would have agreed to prior to my enlightening – the paintings in reference were not cosmetically beautiful to the eye – but I had to come to their defence!  Over the 30 plus years of traveling regularly to Emily’s lands of Utopia I have seen the countryside in drought many, many times.  The colours of the land are reminiscent of these paintings; dead or no grass… various tones of browns and mustard yellows… blacks from fire ravaged mulga forests… dust… flies by the trillions… ‘Stare into the paintings’ I told the journalist, ‘Free your mind’.  She didn’t.  Or certainly didn’t acknowledge that she did!  But that had been me not long before!

I certainly changed, so much so that I built a small but modest sized museum where we dedicated about 25% of its room to Emily paintings and to photographs that Dale and I visualised in her paintings.  I also bought Earth’s Creation at auction in 2007 for over $1 million and put that on display in the museum.

Earth’s Creation by Emily Kame Kngwarreye

Earth’s Creation has since been on exhibition in Japan, the Australian National Museum in Canberra, Parliament House in Darwin and, of recent, spent a few months in Venice, Italy, at the Venice Biennale.  A couple of years ago it was independently valued at $4 million.  So there are many more people out there in the world that have had my “enlightening”, and probably much quicker off the mark than myself!

And I am glad – not from the point of view of valuation – but that I was able to see what others could see and, ultra-importantly, what Emily could see and what she was able to accomplish coming from a completely different upbringing, culture and worldliness than I have.


Emily Kame Kngwarreye

The vast majority of people over the years, who have had negligible or no exposure to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings, generally have little or no idea as to why they are held in such high esteem and admired by those who understand her work.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from the “vast majority” that I mention above, selected from our website this image of an Emily painting.   She said to me,  “Tim, it is an atrocious looking painting.  How on earth could anyone think that it is anything but?”

We all have our own views, ideas and likes regarding art.  My explanation to her was that Emily was a very old, authentic and traditional aboriginal lady when she painted this.  Her upbringing was all to do with the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime – and she even had a hole in her nose from those very early days. This is an absolute rarity now!

She spoke next to no English and through interpreters and the few English words that she possessed, she said that her paintings were about everything.   And “everything” was pretty much to do with creation and mythology.  She was given paints and canvas and almost immediately showed the art world how a little old aboriginal lady could master modern abstract, representing what she saw through her eyes and thoughts.  And thus allowing us, the viewers of her paintings, to see what we believed them to be.    It was all about everything.

Personally I love this piece.   I look into it (and probably because I knew Emily and have had over 30 years experience with her family and other Utopia people), I see it as quite a mystical painting.   I think of her having lived under the stars in the Central Australia deserts all of her life and this is a representation of her perspective of the night skies.  I see bright stars, more distant stars, stars behind clouds, reflected sunsets on the evening clouds, storm buildups – and I imagine thoughts and wonderings of all people when lying on the ground looking up into the night heavens.

Others might see something completely different and I’m sure that they do – and that in itself shows the genius of Emily Kngwarreye.