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Sale of sacred Australian Aboriginal artefact cancelled

More coverage of the cancellation of the auction [1] of the Aboriginal Tjuringa stone.

Daily Telegraph [2]

Auction of sacred Aboriginal stone cancelled
By Bonnie Malkin, Sydney
12:00PM BST 07 Sep 2011

An English auction house has cancelled the sale of a rare and deeply sacred Aboriginal stone after outcry in Australia.

The delicately etched “Tjuringa” stone, which according to tradition must never be seen by women, was expected to fetch £6000 at a sale organised by Canterbury Auction Galleries.

The vendor was a British woman who received the stone as a birthday gift while living in Sydney more than 50 years ago.

In a note on the sale, the auction house said the “Kent lady” had been given the 10.5 by 6 inches oval stone by writer and explorer Archer Russell in 1959.

“I called the Churinga (Tjuringa) my dreaming stone,” she is quoted as saying in the auction house notes.

“As I can’t divide it between my two sons, I have decided to sell it. Archer was a kind, loving man and I know he would approve.”

But Aboriginal groups and indigenous art curators in Australia were outraged when they heard that one of the most sacred objects in Aboriginal culture would be offered for sale at auction.

Experts said the stone was so important to the Arrernte people of the central desert region that museums in Australia refused to exhibit it out of respect for their beliefs.

Bernice Murphy, national director of Museums Australia, said Tjuringas were among the most protected and significant objects in Aboriginal culture and anyone with an affinity for indigenous beliefs would understand that it was sacrilegious to give one to a white English woman as a birthday gift.

Ms Murphy said in ancient Aboriginal times women would be put to death for even laying eyes on it.

“It’s more important to Aboriginal culture than the Elgin Parthenon Marbles to Greece because this kind of object has a continuing religious association,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

The stones were used at the climax of the most profound ceremonies but were usually hidden away in places that only senior elders knew about, she said.

The auction house later announced that it had decided to withdraw the sale of the stone, after being approached by the Australian High Commission in London and cultural experts who explained its significance.

“I’ve spoken to the vendor and you can be the first to know that we’re withdrawing it from auction,” the auction house’s managing director Tony Pratt told the ABC.

“Obviously my vendor and myself don’t wish to offend anybody from the Aboriginal races,” he said. “I’ve realised how important this has become”.

He added that he hoped the stone could be returned to Australia.

UK Press Association [3]

Sacred stone withdrawn from sale
(UKPA – The Press Association) – Sep 8, 2011

A sacred Aboriginal stone not supposed to be seen by women has been withdrawn from a British auction following a public outcry in Australia.

An unidentified woman who was given the unremarkable-looking artefact as a present while in Australia in the 1960s had it listed for sale for up to £6,000. But outrage was provoked 10,000 miles away among art curators because it is considered of such spiritual power and importance that it should never be sold.

Tradition dictates that the stone, known as tjuringa, must only be handled by Aboriginal male elders. And it is also said that Aboriginal women who see it will be struck down and die.

It is used in the most profound ceremonies within Aboriginal culture and then secreted away, with only senior elders knowing how to retrieve it. Such has been the intensity of feeling Down Under about its proposed sale at Canterbury Auction Galleries in Kent that Australia’s High Commission in London intervened.

The high commissioner’s personal assistant telephoned Anthony Pratt, the managing director of the galleries, to impress upon him the stone’s significance.

Now it has been withdrawn from the auction, and efforts are taking place to repatriate it to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

Mr Pratt said: “It’s an unusual and unremarkable piece but we realise that it is of great significance to the Aboriginal people. It came in on a regular valuation day in Sandwich. It wasn’t quite what you’d expect to turn up in Sandwich. It’s pretty unremarkable. It’s not a work of art by any stretch.

“It’s a flat, oval stone with a bit of decoration on the front. When I spoke to the high commissioner’s personal assistant, they said that the vendor has good title to sell it. But they said it is revered and told me about its importance. We didn’t want to offend anybody just for a sale so the decision was taken to withdraw it from the auction.”

The seller, from the Sandwich area of Kent, was given the stone as a gift in 1961 by Archer Russell, an Australian naturalist and writer. It is understood to date from some time before the 19th century and belong to the Arrernte people of central Australia.

Bernice Murphy, the national director of Museums Australia, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “It’s more important to Aboriginal culture than the Elgin Marbles to Greece because this kind of object has a continuing religious association.”