Provenance and Authenticity Issues

A frequent issue which arises in relation to Indigenous visual arts is the provenance and the authenticity of artworks. A problem faced by Indigenous artists and communities is how to protect authentic artworks from rip-offs made by non-Indigenous people. Consumers and commercial operators are also concerned that they are dealing with authentic Indigenous artworks.

  • Provenance: provenance deals with the source of the artwork.

In order not to buy fake Indigenous artworks, consumers must check the provenance of the artwork. For example, whether an artwork really comes from the Indigenous art centre, or from the community or region the vendor claims it comes from is an issue of provenance.

  • Authenticity: authenticity deals with the truthfulness of origins.

In the case of Indigenous artworks, authenticity means artworks that have been made by an Indigenous person. Authenticity can also relate to the circumstances in which the artwork is created. Therefore, a painting made in the dotted style of some Aboriginal art cannot be sold as an authentic Indigenous art if the artist is not an Indigenous person. Likewise, it is questionable whether artifacts created on a large scale solely for the tourist market (such as didgeridoos) can be considered as authentic – even in circumstances where the person creating the object is an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

The provenance and the authenticity of Indigenous artworks is important not only for ethical and legal reasons but because Indigenous artworks have significant value in the art market.

As there is no longer a label of authenticity managed by a functional administrative body, many art centres, galleries, retailers and individual artists provide purchasers of Indigenous artworks with certificates of authenticity. Those certificates include the artist’s name, date of birth, artwork name, and photographs of the artist painting the artwork. However, these certificates of authenticity do not guarantee that work is authentic. In fact, in most instances artworks have not been through an independent assessment process.

In July 2010 the Indigenous Art Code (the Code) was opened to members. While the principal focus of the Code is on ensuring that dealers working with Indigenous artists do not engage in unconscionable conduct towards those artists, it will have an impact in ensuring authenticity through the issuing of a Code Certificate for artworks sold. This Certificate will incorporate many of the features of authenticity schemes currently being used by Indigenous art centres.

Several other propositions have been made in order to guarantee the provenance and the authenticity of Indigenous artworks in the future, including:

  • a trade mark that recognises and protects Indigenous culture and intellectual property.