A group of protesters chanting “Sotheby's, Sotheby's, leave them alone, let us take our ancestors home” assailed art collectors arriving at an auction of “Important Australian Art” in Armadale, Australia, last night, reports The Age.
Five demonstrators led by two staff from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center were protesting outside Sotheby's at the proposed sale of “racist” nineteenth-century black plaster busts of Van Diemen's Land Aboriginal chief Woureddy and his wife, Truganini, who, to the offense of Aboriginal people, is often referred to as the last “full-blood” Tasmanian Aboriginal.
Sotheby's had withdrawn the works for sale just hours before the auction after it learned of the protest and growing attention in Tasmania. The busts had been expected to sell for between five hundred thousand and seven hundred thousand dollars for the vendor—a family from New South Wales that has owned them by familial descent from the original artist, Benjamin Law, who is considered Australia's first professional sculptor.
“In consultation with the vendor, Sotheby's has decided to withdraw the lots from sale,” the auction house said in a statement yesterday. “This has been done to ensure the safety and security of the public and staff, and protect the works.”
Protest organizer Sara Maynard, the legal field officer for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center, said her group had decided to go ahead with the protest to bring attention to the issue and to “negotiate” with the vendor to return the busts to Tasmania's Aboriginal community. “These busts are not art. The image of Truganini on display shows she was the last full-blooded Aboriginal, and this provides a racist image that there is no continuing Aboriginal culture in Tasmania.”
Law made up to thirty casts of the busts and eight remain in public collections around Australia and overseas, including at the Melbourne Museum, Melbourne University, and the British Museum. The pair for sale have been on loan to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery since 1983 and were shown at Canberra's National Portrait Museum this year.