Christie’s auctioneers had hoped Lundari (Barramundi Dreaming) would fetch in the vicinity of a million dollars and set a new record for Australian indigenous art already held by the same artist.
In 2001, the Australian National Gallery made auction history paying $778,750 for All That Rain Coming From Topside.
Lundari is widely considered one of Thomas’s greatest masterpieces, featuring his distinctive expressive stamp of “deceptively simple yet powerful imagery” in natural pigments on a 90 centimetre by 180 centimetre board.
Thomas himself earned a reputation as an artist of astonishing ability before his death in 1998.
Roger Benjamin, Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Sydney, said Rover Thomas ranked among the top three or four Aboriginal artists.
“They should be recognised as great artists, not just great Aboriginal artists,” Mr Benjamin told the Agence France Presse news service.
But the considerable interest Lundari drew at showings in Sydney, New York, London and Melbourne failed to translate into strong offers after auctioneer Roger McIlory began bidding at $600,000 in Christie’s South Yarra auction house.
Eventually, Lundari was passed in at $750,000.
Its seller, the Holmes a Court family, will hold onto the painting that has been in its collection for 20 years.
Thomas painted the work in 1985, and sold it a year later for less than $5,000.
Born near Gunawaggi in Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert around 1926, the stockman-labourer picked up a paintbrush in the mid-1970s.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales has described his paintings as “a form of visual language where stories of ‘country’, present and past, are counterpoint to his direct observation of the landscape and its culturally significant features.”
He went on to take a leading role in the burgeoning Aboriginal art scene.
Australian indigenous artists now account for 50 percent of all works sold in the country.
The booming industry fuelled by major interest from overseas buyers.
At a Sotheby’s auction in Melbourne last month, 195 Aboriginal works sold for a total of $4.8 million, with 42 percent of that sold internationally.