March 19, 2012

UK auction house cancels sale of sacred Australian Aboriginal Tjuringa stone

Posted at 1:53 pm in Similar cases

Canterbury Auction Galleries in Kent planned on selling a sacred Aboriginal artefact known as the Tjuringa stone. The sale has now been cancelled following pressure from Australian Museums & the Australian High Commission in London.

ABC (Australia)

Sacred stone withdrawn from UK auction
Tanya Nolan reported this story on Wednesday, September 7, 2011 12:50:00

ELEANOR HALL: Now to that victory for Indigenous Australians.

A British auction house has withdrawn a sacred Aboriginal artefact from sale after high level intervention by Australian museums and the Australian High Commission in London.

The Tjuringa stone, which is believed to belong to Arrernte people of Central Australia, was being sold by a woman from Kent who says she was given it as a gift when she lived in Sydney more than 50 years ago.

News of its sale stirred anger and concern among Indigenous art curators who appealed directly to the auction house to have the item withdrawn as Tanya Nolan reports.

TANYA NOLAN: The significance of the Tjuringa stone to Aboriginal culture is difficult to grasp.

The national director of Museums Australia, Bernice Murphy says she, like any other woman in ancient Aboriginal times, would be put to death for even gazing at it.

BERNICE MURPHY: In tribal law only an initiated man would see this at a very senior level. So it’s a most sacred object; never would be shown to women originally on pain of death if they saw such an object accidentally or found out about it.

It’s that important. It’s more important to Aboriginal culture than the Elgin Parthenon Marbles to Greece because this kind of object has a continuing religious association.

TANYA NOLAN: So what was it used for?

BERNICE MURPHY: I feel even, you know, a little hesitant explaining this as a white Australian woman.

It would’ve been used in the most profound ceremonies within Aboriginal culture where this kind of object would’ve been brought out for its ritual power at a crescendo moment of ceremony and then secreted away where only senior elders would know how to retrieve it.

TANYA NOLAN: How did such a sacred object end up in the hands of a British auction house?

The managing director of the Canterbury Auction Galleries in Kent, Tony Pratt told ABC Sydney’s Philip Clark that a local woman brought the object to him after hearing of a similar stone being sold in France for a large sum of money.

TONY PRATT: It was brought into me on a routine evaluation day held in Sandwich in Kent by the vendor who’d been given it in 1961 by the writer and explorer, Archer Russell who had written numerous books on Aboriginal ways and life.

She has the right to own this, someone had given it to her, and she came back to England shortly after that and has held it for the past 50 years.

PHILIP CLARK: Are you aware of the sacred nature of this stone?

TONY PRATT: I am now, yes.

TANYA NOLAN: Mr Pratt points out that as the owner of the stone the unnamed vendor is entitled to sell it and says it would probably fetch between 6 and $8,000.

But he says the vendor now hopes to return the stone to Australia.

TONY PRATT: I have now spoken to the vendor and you can be the first to know that the vendor’s agreed that we’ll withdraw it from the auction for the time being. In fact I’m contacting Michael Cawthorn and the Australian High Commission to see how we take this forward.

TANYA NOLAN: Michael Cawthorn from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory says he’s delighted at the news.

MICHAEL CAWTHORN: Tjuringa are considered to be the bodies of totemic ancestors from which, you know, traditional owners are reincarnations.

And so they’re a central material part of a complex and sophisticated ritual system which really underpins cultural practice in Central Australia.

These objects do turn up from time to time on online auction sites and so on but it’s something that the museum and the Australia Research Centre considers to be very inappropriate given the spiritual significance of these objects to Aboriginal people.

TANYA NOLAN: As the one to first appeal to the Canterbury Auction Galleries to withdraw the object from sale, he now hopes the owner will hear his plea and return the stone to the Arrernte people.

And if you’re tempted to have a peak at the object on the internet, bear in mind this warning from Museums Australia’s Bernice Murphy.

BERNICE MURPHY: In religious Aboriginal terms – completely sacrilegious that that can be seen, and we’re trying with the best means we have available to us in this world to get hold of this object if we possibly could, get it back to Australia and then put it in the networks under appropriate Indigenous control which would restore immediately the passage of this object back to its religious, incredible reverberation.

ELEANOR HALL: Matt Wordsworth reporting.

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