‘Bring ’em home’: Australian crowdfunding campaign seeks to buy Ulunjeri art at New York auction

An Aboriginal heritage committee in Melbourne is facing a race against time to prevent two culturally significant artworks from being lost to Australia when they fall under the hammer at Sotheby’s in New York next week.

The two works – earth paint and charcoal painting on paper, and a carved hardwood parry shield – were created by William Barack, a key figure in the mid-to-late 1800s as Wrundjeri ngurungaeta (leader), negotiator writers and artists.

this Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Heritage Company launched a GoFundMe campaign Raising money to buy the pieces at auction and send them back to Australia, it wasn’t until late April that it was known that the artifacts were coming up for auction. The auction is scheduled for May 25.

Elder Ulunjerry and Uncle Ron Jones, a descendant of Barack, 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 government’s responsibility, [these works] is part of our history and should be protected,” he said.

“We are totally affected [by colonisation] Tasmania was almost destroyed in a similar fashion. Let’s try to save some of our history and bring it home. “

This 1897 painting is titled Corroboree (women in possum-skin cloaks)estimated to be worth around $500,000 according to Sotheby’s online catalog, while the shield Estimated to be around $35,000.

However, Gwyneth Elsum, chief executive of Wurundjeri Corporation, said it had been told that as much as $1 million could be raised to secure a successful bid at the auction.

William Barack and children from Kolandek. Date unknown.
William Barack and children from Kolandek. Date unknown. Photo: Yarra Ranges Regional Museum Collection

“We didn’t know exactly how much they would cost, so we just estimated,” she said. “As we get closer to auction, we’ll get a better idea of ​​what they’re actually targeting.”

Elsum said the company wrote to Victorian Indigenous Affairs Minister Gabrielle Williams on April 22, seeking a meeting to discuss how the state government could assist in bringing the artwork home. A meeting has not been scheduled.

In a statement, a spokesman for the minister said that under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, Victoria was only responsible for the return of ancestral remains and relics to their rightful owners in the state.

“The federal government has a responsibility to protect and repatriate important artefacts from overseas as part of the national heritage of all Australians,” the spokesman said.

Barack is one of the most revered historical figures of the Ulunjeri family and a key figure in negotiations between the two sides. Indigenous Australians and Europeans in and around Melbourne (Narrm) in the 19th century.

As a teenager, he witnessed meetings between his father, uncle, and other Ulunjerry elders that led to John Batman acquiring most of the land that became the city of Melbourne and Geelong. Barack has fought this deprivation peacefully for most of his life, using written petitions, diplomacy and negotiating skills.

La Trobe University lecturer Nikita Vanderbyl, who completed her doctoral dissertation on Barak, said the two works were either purchased by Swiss rancher and agriculturalist Baron Frédéric Guillaume de Pury or given to de Pury by Barak as a gift or form family. cultural exchange. The de Pury family owns a great deal of land in the Coranderrk region to which the Wrundjeri Woi Wurrung people, part of the larger Kulin country, have migrated following the European invasion.

“The way I describe this friendship is that it came about almost out of necessity, because in this colonial period, nothing was really fixed,” she said.

“Barack brought his family in [de Pury’s] Like they brought him into their world…he was using that friendship as a way to stay connected to his country. There are strong indications that this friendship led to other artworks, which are now in the de Pury Swiss collection in Neuchâtel. “

About a decade ago, the Australian branch of the de Pury family donated its extensive Barak archive to the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum.

Sandra de Pury, who still owns and operates the Yeringberg wine estate established by her ancestors in the Yarra Valley, told the Guardian that her family is not close to the Europe-based de Purys, and that they have not been working on Barak’s work. over contact.

“We’d love to see them back in Australia, but not donate to the GoFundMe as I fully intended to, which is a substantial amount of money,” de Pury said.

Jones said his ancestors gave many of the paintings as gifts to people he respected.

“The painting tells the story of his people, his culture and his history,” he said of Corroboree. “He would only give it to a special friend… As far as I’m concerned, that family has no right to make hundreds of thousands of dollars from what was given to them.”

Barack’s artistic career was not widely recognized until shortly after his death in 1903. Much of his art is now housed 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 Barack Bridge was completed in Melbourne, and he was added to the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage List in 2011.

This isn’t the first time the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Heritage Company has resorted to crowdfunding in an attempt to return Barak’s work. In 2016, Bonhams sold his painting Ceremony for $512,400. The company didn’t raise enough money to outrun the successful buyer, an anonymous private collector. Its whereabouts are now unknown.

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