Annabel Bowles

Tropic Now journalist

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Albert Namatjira painting found in Cairns shed clean out


One lucky local had no idea his shed contained a hidden treasure – a rare painting worth an estimated $30,000. 

The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, rediscovered an Albert Namatjira watercolour during a storage clean out and believes it had been there for about thirty years. 

He sent it to local art conservator Melanie Sorenson, who obtained the estimated insurance value from a major Sydney auction house.



Melanie told Tropic Now she immediately knew it was an authentic Namatjira work.

“I could see straight away – even through the dirty, dusty old frame and cloudy glazing – that it was an authentic Albert Namatjira,” she said. 

“There are a lot of reproductions floating around, but after working eight years as a professional conservator at the National Library of Australia and having seen and worked on other Namatjira paintings, I knew this wasn’t a fake.

“After getting Namatjira’s signature authenticated, I started working on the watercolour in my lab in Smithfield.

"The treatment involved removing the backing board and two water washes of the watercolour painting to get rid of staining and dirt that had accumulated over the years

"20 hours of work eventually revealed signatures, annotations and framing notes on the back, and a refreshed image true to Namatjira’s remarkable sense of colour of the Australian landscape.”

 

The painting, titled Ghost Gums, depicts a landscape in the MacDonnell Ranges, Tjoritja – Namatjira’s homelands in Central Australia. 

Melanie believes it was painted in the mid-1950s, with writing on the back indicating the owner’s family received the watercolour in 1957.  

She said the owner once met Namatjira and his art mentor Rex Battarbe, a friend of the owner’s father. 

“But the owner had no idea it would be worth as much as $30,000,” Melanie said. "The cultural value of the work is also undeniable."

“He’s still deciding whether to keep the painting or offer it at auction." 

Melanie is unaware of any other authentic Namatjira work in Far North Queensland. 


AN ICON FOR INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS

Namatjira is internationally recognised for his Western-style watercolours of outback landscapes – a departure from traditional Aboriginal art.  

Although he only started painting in his early 30s, the Arrernte man’s work quickly drew attention from dignitaries around the world, including Queen Elizabeth II.

He was awarded the Queen's Coronation Medal in 1953, as well as met the Queen in Canberra the year after. 

It wasn’t until 1957 that Namatjira was granted restricted Australian citizenship, becoming the first Aboriginal person with the rights to vote, to own property and to drink alcohol.

The same rights weren’t extended to the rest of the Indigenous population until the 1967 Referendum.

At the time of his death in 1959, he had painted around 2000 paintings.  

The late artist’s legacy is carried by his great grandson, Vincent Namatjira, who this year became the first Aboriginal artist to win the Archibald Prize.

The 37-year-old won Australia’s most prestigious portraiture prize for Stand Strong For Who You Are, a painting of himself and Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes.

A painting of Albert Namatjira by William Dargie also won the Archibald Prize.

Awarded in 1956, Dargie’s work was the first painting of an Aboriginal person to win the prize.