Review into the acquisition by the National Museum of Australia of Jabanunga Goorialla (Rainbow Serpent), 1996, attributed to Rover Thomas
Background to the Review
Jabanunga Goorialla (Rainbow Serpent) attributed to Rover Thomas, was offered to the National Museum of Australia (NMA) for donation in FY 2019/20 by Mr Michael Blanche, Director, Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, in honour of his late wife, Ms Lauraine Diggins OAM. As an eligible Cultural Gifts Program (CGP) recipient institution, the NMA also prepared the CGP submission on behalf of the donor.
On 24 February 2022, the NMA announced the donation through a media release detailing the donation by Mr Blanche to the NMA.
On 11 March 2022, the Australian Financial Review (AFR) published an article by journalist and saleroom writer, Ms Gabriella Coslovich. The article reported concerns raised by experts about the provenance of the work and the valuation estimates.
The Director, NMA, Dr Mathew Trinca AM requested a Review into claims raised by the AFR and appointed Deputy Director, NMA, Ms Stephanie Bull to undertake the review.
The Terms of Reference were to investigate and review:
- The steps taken by the Museum to assure itself of the provenance of the work, Jabanunga Goorialla (Rainbow Serpent);
- The extent of the documentation and other sources of information that were consulted by the Museum to establish the work’s provenance;
- The reliability of the valuations undertaken by the external expert valuers engaged by the Museum to assess and value the work;
- The existence of any reliable evidence that may support the claims made about the work’s provenance; and
- Any further steps that might be taken by the Museum to establish the work’s provenance.
The Review process included:
- Review of all documentation held by the NMA relevant to the donation, its provenance, assessment and CGP submission.
- Review of broader contextual documentation relating to the artwork and Rover Thomas, including images, publications, exhibition catalogues.
- Review of the NMA’s policy and procedures framework relating to the acquisition of objects into the NMA collection.
- Review of material provided by the Office for the Arts (OFTA) in relation to the Cultural Gifts Program.
- Review of all material provided by external parties who participated in the Review.
- Interviews with NMA staff, Office for the Arts staff, the donor, CGP valuers, Directors of commercial galleries, and art coordinators.
- Preparation of final report for the Director, National Museum of Australia.
Summary of Review findings
The Review found that at the time of donation in 2020, the NMA undertook steps in accordance with its acquisition policy and procedures framework to assure itself of the provenance of the artwork.
In undertaking the assessment, the NMA undertook sound research and inquiries and utilised a range of publications, documentation, photographs, audio recordings, reference materials.
The NMA’s assessment process included the preparation of a two-stage collection proposal, as required under the NMA’s collection assessment procedures. The collection proposals were considered by the NMA Acquisitions Collection Group (ACG) and approved by the required senior delegate. No issues were identified during the curatorial assessment process, ACG process or by the senior delegate who approved the donation into the NMA’s collection.
The assessment process in 2020 included consideration of:
- Background of the work, its provenance and broader contextual information about Turkey Creek/Warmun community
- Details regarding Rover Thomas, and his work as an artist
- Legal Title (or Chain of Ownership)
- Context of the artwork in relation to the NMA Collection and priority collecting projects
- Cultural context of the work
- Intellectual property matters
- Exhibition and collection management matters
- Statement of Significance.
The NMA formally accepted the donation into the NMA collection, after it had undertaken the assessment process, as outlined in the NMA’s established collection policy and procedures framework.
The Review considered the collection assessment documentation and process at the time the painting was donated, and additional information provided during the course of the Review. The Review concluded that:
- The NMA had undertaken steps to assure itself of the provenance of the artwork
- The NMA had considered a range of documentation when establishing the painting’s provenance
- The NMA has a well-established and an effective collection acquisitions framework. This includes guidance and procedures for undertaking provenance research and conducting due diligence
- There was no cause to doubt the attribution of the painting to Rover Thomas.
The NMA, as an eligible Cultural Gifts Program recipient institution, facilitated the preparation of the CGP submission to OFTA, on behalf of the donor.
Three valuers prepared CGP Certificates of Valuation for the painting as part of the CGP submission. Based on the valuations, a value of $1.3 million was attributed to the donation, which is an average of the three valuations. Each valuer is an approved CGP valuer, they are included on the Register of approved CGP valuers managed by the Office for the Arts (OFTA), and each valuer has been an approved CGP valuers for several decades.
The Review found that the valuers prepared their valuation estimates independently; each valuer undertook their own research when preparing their valuations; and each valuer applied different methodologies to develop their market value estimates.
The NMA consulted with OFTA during the Review regarding the CGP submission. OFTA reported that the CGP submission was assessed in 2020 according to the required CGP processes. This included the CGP submission being assessed by the relevant CGP officers and by an independent Expert Advisor. OFTA advised the CGP submission was assessed at the time as following the correct process for CGP submissions, in accordance with the CGP policies and procedures, and in some aspects exceeded CGP requirements. The role of an Expert Advisor under the CGP program includes reviewing the valuation methodology undertaken by the CGP valuers; assessing whether the valuation estimates reflect the market value of the gift on the day it was made; and assessing whether any aspects of the gift is potentially inconsistent with program requirements. OFTA advised the NMA that no issues or concerns were raised in regard to the valuations.
The Review concluded that the NMA could consider the three CGP Certificates of Valuation reliable.
The Review assessed claims made by the AFR in regard to the painting’s valuation, provenance and quality and the claims that the painting had not been undertaken by Rover Thomas. The Review considered a wide range of documentation and information provided by internal and external parties. The Review concluded that, based on the information provided to the NMA in 2020 and during the course of the Review, there was nothing to substantiate the claims made in the AFR article in relation to the painting’s valuation, provenance or quality or to suggest that the work had not been painted by Rover Thomas. The Review noted that there are several photographs showing Rover Thomas with the painting taken in 1996, including one of him signing the work. There is also a Statutory Declaration by the person who sold the painting in 1996, on Rover’s behalf.
As part of the initial assessment process the Museum considered extensive documentation in relation to the work. While the Review was satisfied that the Museum undertook sufficient due diligence, it did find that the Museum could have done some things better and made some suggestions about further research that could be conducted. In addition, during the Review, a number of participants indicated that there may be additional information available about the painting’s previous display history since its creation in 1996. The Review considered that it may be valuable for the NMA to examine whether any such information would further supplement the documentation the NMA already has in regard to the painting.
Overview of the available provenance for the work
- That the NMA consider additional enhancements to its policies and procedures to further refine its collection acquisition framework, and that the NMA review its collection management framework regularly to ensure it remains up to date.
- That the NMA streamline its internal processes in relation to coordinating CGP submissions.
- That the NMA assess the existence of additional information in relation to the painting’s history to supplement its existing collection documentation and research material associated with the work. This includes undertaking further consultation with Indigenous stakeholders.
- That the NMA address the contested approaches in the art sector regarding what constitutes ‘correctly provenanced’ Indigenous artworks by ensuring policies and procedures provide clear and robust guidance on the NMA’s methodology to establishing its own provenance standards.
- That as part of best practice, that NMA run regular training sessions on the NMA’s acquisitions processes for NMA staff who may be involved in donations.
- The NMA publish online its collection management policies and procedures to promote public transparency and accountability in relation to the NMA’s collection policy and procedure framework, including managing donations.
The NMA would like to thank staff and external interviewees for their time, cooperation and their willingness to participate in the Review. The NMA recognises the personal and professional impacts that this matter has had for everyone interviewed, and in particular the donor and their family, the valuers and staff closely involved in the assessment and acquisition process.
The NMA would like to acknowledge Rover Thomas, who was one of Australia’s greatest artists. His expertise in regard to Indigenous art, knowledge and practice, significantly contributed to national and international recognition and understanding of the importance of Indigenous culture.