ALICE SPRINGS, Australia (Reuters) - Aboriginal art in Australia is booming and improving the lives of poor black communities, but unscrupulous dealers are ripping off artists and fraud from China and India is undermining the industry.
Artwork of ancient "Dreaming" stories, painted on canvases in the outback dirt and hung from trees to dry, regularly fetch thousands of dollars in urban galleries and sometimes millions.
"Earth's Creation" by the late artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye's, a vivid painting recounting a "Dreaming" creation myth, set a world record for an aboriginal artwork in May, selling for A$1.056 million (US$910,345).
Sotheby's in Australia will this month auction up to A$9.8 million worth of aboriginal art, with Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's 1977 masterwork "Warlugulong" expected to fetch A$1.8 million to A$2.5 million.
But while well-known artists are reaping the rewards, some aboriginal artists are being targeted by "carpetbaggers" -- dealers out to make easy money.
Some dealers are paying only a fraction of the retail price to artists who often speak very little English and have never ventured off their remote traditional lands, said a recent Australian parliamentary report.
"Carpetbagging has become a problem through the combination of the great success of indigenous art and the weak economic bargaining position in which indigenous people frequently find themselves," said the report on the indigenous art industry.
One dealer reportedly paid A$150 for a painting that took a week to produce and was worth A$1,500, it said, while others paid for funerals in return for relatives producing art, sometimes worth A$30,000 or 15 times the cost of a funeral.
In one incident, aboriginal artists were forced to live in "squalid conditions" in a motel in the outback town of Alice Springs and produce paintings, said the Senate report.
The artists were paid very little and charged rent they could not afford, keeping them in a "debt-trap obligating them to produce more paintings," it said.
FAKE ART FROM CHINA, INDIA
Australia's aboriginal art industry is worth an estimated A$100 to A$300 million, with about 6,000 artists in more than 80 remote outback communities, said the Senate report.
The value of aboriginal art has risen 40 to 50 percent a year for a decade and mass-produced fake aboriginal paintings were now entering the market to cash in on the boom, it said.
One Indian dealer drove a hire car to the remote Yuendumu aboriginal community, 600km (372 miles) northeast of Alice Springs, and bought every piece of art he could find. He then shipped the artwork back to India to be reproduced and sold the fakes on Australia's tourist Gold Coast, said the Senate report.
Paintings labelled "aboriginal styled" art and craft were being imported to Australia from China and Taiwan and sold in capital cities with fake certificates of authenticity, it said.
"It is obviously worrying. Fraudulent work is coming in from China," said Josh van Haaren, manager of the Mbantua Gallery in Alice Springs which bought "Earth's Creation."
Concerns over the authenticity of aboriginal artwork has led the Mbantua Gallery to introduce micro-chipping of artwork.
IndenteArt is a three-tiered security label system which consists of a microdot, encrypted with multiple lines of code relating to the gallery name, artwork and artist, and a "chemical barcode" impregnated in label and glue.
"If you remove the label, which is quite hard to do, there will still be a trace element there on the painting," explains van Haaren, as he applies a security label to a painting.
The third level of security sees the label's serial number linked to a global database detailing a photograph of the artwork, its origin and buyer.
"If it gets stolen you can jump onto the IndenteArt website and red flag it. If it does turn up it will find its way back to you much more easily," said van Haaren.
ART IMPROVES HEALTH
For the past 21 years the Mbantua Gallery has sourced its artwork from Aborigines living in the Utopia lands northeast of Alice Springs. Every fortnight the gallery drives to 10 black communities, loaded with canvases, paints and brushes. Two weeks later they return and buy the artwork hanging from the trees.
There is no commissioning, the artists create whatever they like, from small artwork you hold in your hand to wall hangings.
"We deal direct with the artists. We know everyone we deal with very well. We negotiate a price with the owner and pay them straight away," said van Haaren, adding the gallery has created a foundation to improve the lives of the Utopian artists.
Australia's 460,000 Aborigines make up 2 percent of the 20 million population and are the most disadvantaged group in the nation. They have a life expectancy 17 years lower than white Australians and have higher rates of heart and kidney disease.
Aboriginal artists are paid about 60 percent of the sale price of their artwork, with much of the proceeds shared in extended-families. Often the sale of paintings is the only income in the community, as there are no jobs in these desert lands.
"The indigenous visual arts and craft sector provides very significant economic, social and cultural benefits," said the Senate report, citing jobs and funding of medical services.
In the past six years the Papunya Tula artists have funded a dialysis unit at the Kintore community and raised A$900,000 for the construction of a swimming pool, which helps reduce eye diseases amongst children who swim in the chlorinated water.
Aborigines do not view their art as a commodity, but more a communal asset to be shared. The "Dreaming" stories belong to all their people, passed down from father to child.
"To be an indigenous artists or artisan is quite a different calling than to be an artist in the European tradition," said the Senate report.
"For many indigenous artists, visual art and craft is not seen as a commodity but rather something akin to a family member -- it represents a multi-layered connection to the past, present and future."