Following the cancelled auction of a Tjuringa stone  in Kent, the current owner hopes to be able to hand it back to the Arunta Aboriginals in Australia.
Row over sale of sacred Aboriginal stone
A cultural conflict between Britain and Australia sparked by the attempted sale of a sacred Aboriginal artefact in Kent looks set to be reignited.
The etched stone “tjuringa”, which only Aboriginal male elders are permitted to handle, was withdrawn from sale after provoking international demands for its return to Australia. But its elderly seller is said to be still considering the future of the priceless item.
The seller was given the artefact as a birthday present 50 years ago and intended to sell it at the Canterbury Auction Galleries last month, before protests in the Australian press forced the sale’s cancellation. Australian museum officials believe the stone should be returned, but the British auction house’s managing director, Tony Pratt, said yesterday it may stay in Britain.
“The vendor wants the item back, she’s not dismissed returning it but she’s not making any firm decisions,” he said.
The sale was expected to raise £6,000.
The controversy began in Australia last month, prior to the auction house’s 14 September sale.
Bernice Murphy, the head of Museums Australia, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the stone should be returned to its “rightful male custodians”. “The recovery of Aboriginal sacred heritage is an important step,” she said.
Ms Murphy classified the item as one of the most sacred in Aboriginal culture and said that such objects are “more important to Aboriginal culture than the Elgin Marbles are to Greece”.
The stone has been traced to the Arrente tribe in Australia’s Central Desert. According to the auction house’s website, the seller, a “Kent Lady”, was given it in 1961 by Archer Russell, an Australian naturalist and writer, after she moved to Sydney with her husband.
Such objects are said to represent the bodies of totemic Aborigine ancestors with powers to influence the collective fate of the clan. Traditionally they were only seen by women “on pain of death”, with many museums in Australia refusing to exhibit them out of respect for Aboriginal beliefs.
Michael Cawthorn from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory had also appealed to Canterbury Auction Galleries to withdraw the stone from sale. “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,” he told ABC last month.
Antiques Trade Gazette 
Totem heads for home as vendor relents
25 October 2011
A KENT auction house has withdrawn a sacred Aboriginal artefact from sale after intervention from cultural experts and the Australian High Commission.
The tjurunga stone from the Arunta people of the desert region of central Australia was scheduled to be sold at Canterbury Auction Galleries on September 14 by a Kent lady who had owned it for 50 years.
Tjurunga, flat-faced ovoid objects made in stone or wood by the Arunta, Loritja, Kaitish and Unmatjera people, are totemic objects in Aboriginal culture. During the unease that followed the appearance of this example on the open market, they were likened by Bernice Murphy, the national director of Museums Australia, as “more important to Aboriginal culture than the Elgin Marbles are to Greece” because of their continuing religious associations.
To be handled only by tribal elders, they are thought to represent the bodies of totemic ancestors with powers to influence the collective fate of the clan. In ancient times they were seen by women on pain of death, and museums in Australia refuse to exhibit them out of respect for Aboriginal beliefs.
That this example was being sold by a white English woman who had received it as a birthday gift only added to the disquiet as news spread.
Canterbury Auction Galleries were shown the 10½ x 6in (26 x 15cm) stone during a routine evaluation day held in Sandwich. One face of the ovoid was carved with concentric circular and semi-circular ornament, the other with a circular panel decorated in red – the totem of the group to which it had once belonged.
Such relics have long been of interest to European anthropologists and sociologists studying the sacred nature of totemic religion. This example had been collected by Archer Russell, explorer, writer and literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, who was the author of various books on the Aboriginal way of life. In 1961, shortly before his death, he gave the stone and other items to the vendor, a local woman who was then living in Sydney, as a birthday gift. She had heard of a similar stone being sold in France for a large sum. Here an estimate of £4000-6000 was suggested.
Michael Cawthorn from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory was the first to appeal to Canterbury Auction Galleries to withdraw the object from sale. “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,” he said.
As opposition spread, and Australian news crews found their way to Kent, the auction house were approached by the Australian High Commission in London. While acknowledging that the vendor had full title to sell, they were delighted when the decision was taken to withdraw it from sale.
“Obviously my vendor and I don’t wish to offend anybody,” said auctioneer Tony Pratt. “I’ve realised how important this has become.”
The vendor now hopes to return the tjurunga stone to the Arunta people.
By Roland Arkell