One of Melbourne’s Aboriginal heritage councils is in a race against time to prevent the loss of two culturally significant works of art to Australia when they come under the hammer of the Sotheby’s auction house in New York next week.
The two works – an earth pigment and charcoal on wallpaper, and a carved hardwood parade shield – were created by William Barak, a pivotal Wurundjeri ngurungaeta (chief), negotiator and artist of the mid to late 1900s. 1800.
the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Society launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to purchase the works at auction and return them to Australia, having only learned of the impending auction of the artefacts in late April. The auction is scheduled for May 25.
A former Wurundjeri and Barak descendant, Uncle Ron Jones, told Guardian Australia the works should be listed as national treasures.
“Whether the government is Liberal or Labour, state or federal, it should be the responsibility of the governments, [these works] are part of our history and must be protected,” he said.
“We were totally impacted [by colonisation] in much the same way Tasmania was devastated. Let’s try to preserve some of our history and bring it home.
However, Wurundjeri Corporation chief executive Gwyneth Elsum said he had been advised to raise up to $1 million to ensure successful auction bids.
“We don’t know exactly how much they will both go to, so we just put in our estimate,” she said. “As we get closer to the auction, we’ll have a better idea of what they’re actually going to do.”
Elsum said the company wrote to Victoria’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Gabrielle Williams on April 22 requesting a meeting to discuss how the state government could help bring the artwork back to life. home. An appointment has not been set.
In a statement, a spokesman for the minister said that under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, Victoria is only responsible for the repatriation of ancestral remains and sacred objects to their rightful owners in the state.
“The Commonwealth Government is responsible for the protection and repatriation of significant cultural objects from overseas as part of the national heritage of all Australians,” the spokesperson said.
Barak is one of the most revered historical figures of the Wurundjeri clan and a key player in negotiations between Indigenous Australians and Europeans in and around Melbourne (Narrm) in the 19th century.
As a teenager, he witnessed the meeting between his father, his uncles and other former Wurundjeri which led to John Batman acquiring much of the land that became the cities of Melbourne and Geelong. Barak has spent much of his life fighting this dispossession peacefully, employing written petitions, diplomacy and negotiation skills.
Nikita Vanderbyl, a professor at La Trobe University who has completed her doctoral dissertation on Barak, said the two works were either purchased by Swiss rancher and farmer Baron Frédéric Guillaume de Pury or gifted to Barak’s family. Pury by Barak as a gift or as a cultural exchange. The de Pury family owned extensive land holdings in the Coranderrk region, where the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people, who were part of the larger Kulin nation, had moved following European encroachment.
“The way I would describe friendship is that it was born almost out of necessity, because during this period of colonization, nothing was really set in stone,” she said.
“Barak brought his family to [de Pury’s] world as much as they brought him into theirs… he used this friendship as a means of maintaining contact with his country. There are strong indications that this friendship resulted in other works of art which are now in de Pury’s Swiss collection in Neuchâtel.
The Australian branch of the de Pury family donated their extensive Barak archive to the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum about a decade ago.
Sandra de Pury, who still owns and operates the Yeringberg winery in the Yarra Valley that her ancestors established, told the Guardian that her family was not close to Purys’ European company and had no not made contact with the work of Barak.
“We would love to see them return to Australia, but unless they donate to GoFundMe, what I have every intention of doing is a substantial amount of money,” de Pury said.
Jones said his ancestor gave many paintings as gifts to people he respected.
“The painting tells the story of its people, their culture and their history,” he said of Corroboree. “He would have given it only to a special friend…as far as I’m concerned, this family has no right to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars with something that was given to them.”
It was not until long after Barak’s death in 1903 that his artistic career gained widespread recognition. Much of his art is now in museums and galleries across Australia.
An exhibition commemorating his life was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003. Two years later the William Barak Bridge was built in Melbourne and it was placed on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Roll in 2011.
This is not the first time that the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Corporation has used crowdfunding to try to repatriate a Barak work. In 2016, Bonhams sold his Ceremony painting for A$512,400. The company did not raise enough funds to outbid the successful buyer, an anonymous private collector. His whereabouts are currently unknown.