Q I hear Australian Aboriginal paintings have gone from being worth nothing a decade ago to being worth millions. What makes them special? WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS: Sydney-based expert Tim Klingender says: 'Aboriginal art is the oldest continuing artistic culture in the world, which remained relatively unknown until recently. It has flowered as a result of an old culture clashing with European culture, and the indigenous Australians wishing to express their culture to the world for the first time. 'The art has many elements that are attractive to western collectors,' he says. 'The abstract qualities are universal. The figurative elements also relate to Modernism and Art Brut [raw art], and would interest collectors of figurative art. You have that purely aesthetic attraction, coupled with the meaning within the work that relates to attachment to the land, creation, and nourishment. 'The inspiration usually comes from their ancestors' stories of their activities in the Dreamtime,' Klingender says. 'It's a very complex way of looking at reality, very different from the western perspective.' He says Aboriginal art isn't only paintings, but also 'artefacts, items of the culture, shields, boomerangs, woven baskets, shell ornaments, right through to works on paper that were also produced in the 19th century by well-known artists'. Painting, the most popular form, tends to be contemporary, says Klingender. 'The western desert dot paintings date from 1971 to the present. Then, there are more contemporary, urban, political works.' CHANGING TIMES: In a way, the method of creating Aboriginal art has changed to suit the western art market, he says. 'Traditionally, the creation of art was tied to ceremonies in which people would dance and sing on top of 'ground paintings' made of vegetable pigments, feathers and other organic materials. At the end of the celebration, the art would be destroyed. Other art was produced on the surfaces of caves or on human bodies.' The idea was that art was spiritual and temporary, not a sellable commodity. In 1971, that changed. 'The government encouraged tribal groups to come out of the desert and go to a place called Papunya, a few hundred kilometres west of Alice Springs,' Klingender says. 'There was a policy to try to assimilate them into white society, and it was a total disaster. 'In the middle of that hideous time, some of the old men went to a government teacher and asked for paints and materials. They came back to him with the most extraordinary paintings: complex, mythological ground designs, but painted with western materials. That is how the first Aboriginal arts co-operative in the desert, the famous Papunya Tula Artists movement, began. It still exists today. 'Before you knew it, these artists were exhibiting at biennales, books were being published, and the whole movement took off. The market has seen an enormous growth in the past eight or so years.' NEW COLLECTOR TIPS: 'Aboriginal art is like any other area of art,' says Klingender. 'Less than one per cent is truly great art. Five per cent is very good. Ten per cent is probably OK, and the rest is not great art. 'It's not easy to find. Take your time and seek a great deal of advice before acquiring works. Before an auction, consult a specialist about the condition and whether it's a good example. Do your homework first about where you're buying. 'The best Rover Thomas works, perhaps the most sought-after artist, sell for A$100,000 [HK$545,000] to A$1 million. Great bark paintings can be bought for A$10,000 to A$50,000, as can great sculptures. High quality artefacts range from A$5,000 to A$15,000. The record price was A$776,500 for a Rover Thomas painting [sold to the National Gallery of Australia], but this year we have another one with an estimate of A$700,000 to A$1million.' RESOURCES: Aboriginal Art by Wally Caruana and Aboriginal Art by Howard Morphy, both available in Hong Kong from Paddyfield.com. Aboriginal Art Auction, July 26-27, Sotheby's, Melbourne. For information on bidding from Hong Kong, call 2524 8121, or go to www.sothebys.com .