PM - Call for ACCC to investigate Aboriginal art industry
[This is the print version of story http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2006/s1592655.htm]
PM - Wednesday, 15 March , 2006 18:36:55
Reporter: David WeberMARK COLVIN: Police in Western Australia have called on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate allegations of criminal activity in the Aboriginal art industry.
Major Fraud Police carried out a two-year investigation after receiving information about fraud and corruption.
Police were told about sweatshops where elderly Aboriginal people were forced into painting for hours at a time, for little return.
They also heard about fake works, overpricing, and artists posing for photographs with paintings that weren't theirs.
But informants wouldn't give statements, and police failed to get official complaints.
David Weber reports.
DAVID WEBER: WA Police are aware of issues in the Kimberley, in the central desert communities and in South Australia.
A recurring theme is the sweatshop, where people are forced into painting for long hours in tin sheds, and being paid little, or not at all.
Detective Senior Constable Mark Duzevich, of the Major Fraud Squad, says people are clearly taking advantage of others.
MARK DUZEVICH: Especially the elderly people. I mean, these are people that, they're not educated; they haven't had a lot of contact with white people. They've got no real basic understanding, you know, of the law and even business law. Obviously they've got no real business sense. A dollar doesn't really have much of a meaning to them, and I think to treat anybody like that is just… it's just not on in this country.
DAVID WEBER: Detective Senior Constable Duzevich says it's been difficult to gather evidence for a range of reasons. People who said they'd seen criminal behaviour simply wouldn't give statements for fear of damaging their own reputations.
Buyers who know they've got a fake may be unlikely to go public because they know they won't get their money back. They may prefer to on-sell it and then it becomes someone else's problem.
Indeed, everyone seems to know it's going on, but no one wants to go on the record.
Industry insiders talk of galleries providing alcohol and food worth hundreds of dollars for paintings that've been sold for thousands.
Then there's the story of a failed attempt to get some Aboriginal women to go to Bali to instruct on how to copy Aboriginal art.
Emily Rohr of Short Street Gallery in Broome says art fraud is not widespread in the Kimberley. But, on ABC Radio North West this morning, she said there are some who are out to make a quick buck.
EMILY ROHR: Oh, you know, someone was telling me once, and that's total hearsay, so it's, you know, I can't really say that it was something that happened to me personally. But, you know, where they've witnessed English backpackers, if you like, painting copies of Kimberley artworks, you know, from the artists that work, you now, the more well known artists.
DAVID WEBER: The hope is that if buyers make a strong effort to ensure authenticity, then the fake industry will suffer and is more likely to be exposed.
The Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists is the peak advocacy and support group in Australia's north.
The Association's Manager, Stephanie Hawkins, has welcomed the reference to the ACCC.
STEPHANIE HAWKINS: It will help the buyers who will be purchasing artwork be more aware of what's happening, and also stamp out some of the fraud that, as we've heard, has been identified to the police.
And it also creates a stronger industry for the artists, and people know that the work that they're buying is actually what they think it is that they're buying.
DAVID WEBER: Do you think that fraud is widespread in the Aboriginal art industry?
STEPHANIE HAWKINS: There's been a lot of media attention to that at the moment. Different regions have different ways in which people are targeting artists. But, yes, there is that sort of grey area where there are people that are making money at other people's misfortune, I guess.
DAVID WEBER: What is the best way to stop the kinds of behaviours that police in Western Australia have identified?
STEPHANIE HAWKINS: There needs to be a standard of a code of conduct. Currently there is a code of conduct for artists, but we're currently working with another organisation called Nasa (phonetic) in the development of an Indigenous commercial code of conduct that would be a voluntary code of conduct that people within the industry would practice to, which is already adopted by a lot of the ethical people who work within the industry already.
DAVID WEBER: And a certification, a universal certification?
STEPHANIE HAWKINS: There's potential for that.
I guess when anything's a voluntary thing, people can pick and choose whether they'd like to use it. Obviously we'd encourage people to use it, because it proves that they're working ethically with the artists that they're representing, and people have been able to see what they're buying and know that it's what they thought they were buying.
DAVID WEBER: But the onus still, I guess, would be on the buyer to make sure that they're getting certification if they're after original, genuine art.
STEPHANIE HAWKINS: Yeah, we've produced a guide called The Purchasing Australian Aboriginal Art Consumer Guide, which lists a series of questions that consumers can ask commercial galleries, art centres, dealers, as to the authenticity of the work and where the work has actually come from, and that it is actually from the artists that the tag might have on it.
MARK COLVIN: The Manager of the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists, Stephanie Hawkins. She was speaking to David Weber.
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