Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Arts minister Rod Kemp is investigating claims made by the Weekend Australian in March that Aboriginal artists are being exploited by unscrupulous dealers who force them to work in sweatshop conditions for poor wages. He is also looking into allegations that dealers are using elderly Aboriginal artists to flood the market with poor-quality works.

Australian indigenous art is a lucrative business with works by top artists such as Clifford Possum (1932-2002) being prized by both national and international collectors. But the government fears that many artists, particularly those with a poor command of English, are not seeing the fruits of their labour.

Senator Kemp said: “Reputable art dealers and community art centres look after the interests of their artists. But increasing sales and higher prices encourage privateers and dodgy operators to move in and exploit vulnerable artists. I want to ensure more is done to stamp out this problem.”

In the past, authorities have struggled to prosecute predatory dealers because their activities tend to be unethical rather than illegal. The government plans to find ways to regulate the art industry and educate buyers by consulting with industry representatives, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the National Indigenous Council.

London-based Aboriginal art dealer Rebecca Hossack said exploitation was an age-old problem for artists generally, but she doubted whether legislation could prevent it from taking place.

She added that the overwhelming majority of people working in the Australian art industry were “really committed” and it was just a few dealers who gave the business a bad name.

Ms Hossack works in close partnership with Aboriginal communities, staying with them in Australia and inviting artists to stay with her in London.

By Sally Percy