22 December 2022
National Museum of Australia media statement
Review of donation of Rover Thomas artwork Jabanunga Goorialla (Rainbow Serpent)
In the wake of concerns expressed about the provenance of the Rover Thomas work Jabanunga Goorialla (Rainbow Serpent) which was gifted to the National Museum of Australia (NMA), in March 2022 the Museum established an internal review to consider issues raised about the provenance and value of the painting (‘the Review’).
The donation of the Rainbow Serpent was gratefully accepted by the Museum, from the highly respected and long-standing arts patron, Michael Blanche, in honour of his late wife Lauraine Diggins OAM, who passed away in 2019.
The Review included an examination of the Museum’s internal acquisition processes and considered documentation, publications, photographs and other reference materials associated with the gift.
The Review found no evidence to give cause for concern about the painting’s valuation, provenance, or quality.
It also found the Museum undertook collection assessment work, as outlined in its established collection policy and procedures framework, which included consideration of the painting’s background, artist, legal title and cultural context.
It concluded that the Museum had undertaken sufficient due diligence to assure itself of the provenance of the artwork and in the absence of any other evidence, that there was no cause to doubt the attribution of the painting to Rover Thomas.
The Review noted the painting is accompanied by a digital certificate of authenticity prepared by Warmun Traditional Artists. 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.
Further, the Review clarified where the painting has been held since 1996. In 1996, on instruction from Rover Thomas, Warmun Traditional Artists sold the painting to a private collector based in Western Australia. The painting was held by this individual in storage until around 2014, when it was displayed for sale in several galleries, before it was purchased by Ms Diggins in 2017.
The Review also included an examination of the valuations conducted for the painting. The artwork was reviewed and assessed by three (3) Cultural Gifts Program (CGP) approved valuers, who are included in a Register of valuers managed by the Office for the Arts (OFTA). The valuers separately assessed the painting as being worth $1.2-milllion, $1.2-million and $1.5-million, respectively. Based on the valuations, a value of $1.3-million was attributed to the donation, which is an average of the three valuations.
The Review found the valuers prepared their valuation estimates independently. OFTA reported that the CGP submission was then assessed by an independent Expert Advisor. The role of the Expert Advisor included assessing whether the valuers’ estimates reflected the market value of the gift, on the day they were made. OFTA advised that no concerns were raised in regard to the valuations.
The Review did recommend the Museum consider additional enhancements to its policies and procedures to further refine its collection acquisition framework.
The Museum has begun work to update its acquisition procedures to reflect these recommendations.
While no evidence has surfaced to bring into question the attribution of the work to Rover Thomas, the Museum takes its responsibilities to Indigenous artists and communities seriously.
While the Review was satisfied that the Museum undertook sufficient due diligence, it did find that some of the research and assessment processes could have been done better and pointed to Indigenous consultation as an area to be addressed. The Museum recognises that this was due in part to the acquisition being conducted during the COVID pandemic when travel was restricted and believes these enquiries should now be undertaken.
The Review recommended that the Museum conduct additional research about the painting to supplement its existing collection documentation, including commencing consultation with Indigenous stakeholders and contacting the original purchaser and all galleries that previously displayed the work.
The Museum will therefore undertake additional research, which will include staff travelling to the Kimberley to meet with community members.
The additional research will also examine the divergent views and contested approaches in the art sector about what constitutes ‘correctly provenanced’ Indigenous artworks with a view to ensuring better understanding how this issue can be managed by cultural institutions. The additional research will commence in 2023.
If new evidence comes to light in relation to the provenance of the painting, the Museum will of course revisit these issues.
The Museum thanks everyone who participated in the Review process to date and acknowledges Rover Thomas, who was one of Australia’s greatest artists.