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Apparently he became fascinated by cows after studying the work of Australian painter Sir William Dobell (1899-1970) whose expertise in things bovine was put to Government use during the Second World War when he was ordered to make papier-mâché cows to fool Japanese pilots searching for Australian Army airfields.

Kelly’s work is known well beyond the Antipodes, having been regularly exhibited at the Piccadilly Gallery in London, but it is Australian private collectors, encouraged by the artist’s endorsement in Europe, who flock to his shows at Melbourne’s Niagara Gallery and who have sent auction prices into orbit.

The owner of the Niagara Gallery, and Kelly’s Melbourne dealer, Bill Nuttall, equates the desire for a ‘Kelly cow’ with that for a Sydney Nolan Ned Kelly picture, a work from Arthur Boyd’s Bride series and a Charles Blackman (b. 1928) Schoolgirl picture.

New South Wales auctioneers Cromwell’s (buyer’s premium n/a) capitalised on all this hype at their July 8-9 event in Prymont by putting Shadow on Aerial View 2002, a 4ft 6in by 5ft (1.37 x 1.52m) oil on canvas on the front cover of the sale catalogue.

Bought at the Piccadilly Gallery just a few months ago by an Australian private collector, the canvas represented a thematic change from Kelly’s oeuvre by including a few kangaroos as well as cows – a judicious nod to his home
market.

Pitched rather punchily at $60,000-80,000, the picture attracted lots of interest and was knocked down in the room at $62,000 (£26,600).

The 416-lot sale also included a large section of Aboriginal pictures, an area where prices are constantly climbing.

As with many 20th century Aboriginal artists, Rover Thomas (c.1926-1998) began painting late in life and Bedford Station Hills 1995, a 3ft 1in x 4ft 2in (94cm x 1.28m.) work in natural ochres on linen, was painted just three years before he died.

Signed to the verso, the picture had been bought by the private vendor at Jinta Desert Art in Sydney and, as is often the case, it seems the vendor had rather inflated ideas of its market value, for it was catalogued with a top estimate of A$40,000. This was too ambitious but the picture did find a buyer at A$28,750 (£12,400).

Further indigenous successes included three important early works from the Papunya Tula movement founded in 1971 in Papunya, a small bush town some 160 miles west of Alice Springs.

It was here that Geoffrey Bardon, a teacher for the Aboriginal community, encouraged local artists to add to their traditional dot-and-circle designs on the ground and on the body by using Western materials such as acrylics, paints, board and canvas.

The best seller of the three Papunya Tula pictures was Anatjari Tjakamarra’s (c.1930-1992) Cave Corroboree c.1973.

The 2ft x 22in (62cm x 55cm) work, which used synthetic polymer powder paint on board, was given by the artist to George Herbert Hawkes, former executive director of the Peter Stuyvesant Cultural Foundation, and then passed by descent to the current vendor who kept all three Papunya Tula pictures in storage for the past 15 years.

Unlike the Rover Thomas vendor, he had no idea of their value and came close to throwing the pictures away before being persuaded otherwise.

On sale day, Cave Corroboree, c.1973, was estimated at $6000-8000 and took $21,850 (£9400); Budgerigar Dreaming, c.1973, by Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri (b.1925) and Bushfire, c.1974, by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri (c.1936-1984) took $5175 (£2200) and $8050 (£3500) respectively.