A KENT auction house has withdrawn a sacred Aboriginal artefact from sale after intervention from cultural experts and the Australian High Commission.
The tjurunga stone from the Arunta people of the desert region
of central Australia was scheduled to be sold at Canterbury Auction
Galleries on September 14 by a Kent lady who had owned it for 50
Tjurunga, flat-faced ovoid objects made in stone or wood by the
Arunta, Loritja, Kaitish and Unmatjera people, are totemic objects
in Aboriginal culture. During the unease that followed the
appearance of this example on the open market, they were likened by
Bernice Murphy, the national director of Museums Australia, as
"more important to Aboriginal culture than the Elgin Marbles are to
Greece" because of their continuing religious associations.
To be handled only by tribal elders, they are thought to
represent the bodies of totemic ancestors with powers to influence
the collective fate of the clan. In ancient times they were seen by
women on pain of death, and museums in Australia refuse to exhibit
them out of respect for Aboriginal beliefs.
That this example was being sold by a white English woman who
had received it as a birthday gift only added to the disquiet as
Canterbury Auction Galleries were shown the 10½ x 6in (26 x
15cm) stone during a routine evaluation day held in Sandwich. One
face of the ovoid was carved with concentric circular and
semi-circular ornament, the other with a circular panel decorated
in red - the totem of the group to which it had once belonged.
Such relics have long been of interest to European
anthropologists and sociologists studying the sacred nature of
totemic religion. This example had been collected by Archer
Russell, explorer, writer and literary editor of the Sydney Morning
Herald, who was the author of various books on the Aboriginal way
of life. In 1961, shortly before his death, he gave the stone and
other items to the vendor, a local woman who was then living in
Sydney, as a birthday gift. She had heard of a similar stone being
sold in France for a large sum. Here an estimate of £4000-6000 was
Michael Cawthorn from the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern
Territory was the first to appeal to Canterbury Auction Galleries
to withdraw the object from sale. "These objects do turn up from
time to time on online auction sites and so on, but it's something
that the museum and the Australia Research Centre considers to be
very inappropriate, given the spiritual significance of these
objects to Aboriginal people," he said.
As opposition spread, and Australian news crews found their way
to Kent, the auction house were approached by the Australian High
Commission in London. While acknowledging that the vendor had full
title to sell, they were delighted when the decision was taken to
withdraw it from sale.
"Obviously my vendor and I don't wish to offend anybody," said
auctioneer Tony Pratt. "I've realised how important this has
The vendor now hopes to return the tjurunga stone to the Arunta
By Roland Arkell