The Collector’s Minute: Australian Aboriginal Shield

This Australian Aboriginal shield sold last year for £35,000 (about $54,000 in U.S. dollars), nearly 10 times what its former owner though it was worth.

As an appraiser, one sometimes comes across some wonderful things among the average bric-a-brac most of us have stashed in our homes; things that are often so far removed from the everyday items we have, we have no idea as to their origin or potential value and have to call in a specialist.

The piece pictured right is one of these way-outside-the-norm items that, at first glance, might be some cheap, fake relic made for tourists in Hawaii or Thailand. Such pieces often go unidentified and sold for far less than they are worth because they often resemble those souvenirs brought home in great numbers by long-lost relatives between the First and Second World Wars. But a genuine piece like this comes up so rarely that they are also misidentified by auctioneers and general estate clearance companies.

This piece is one of those finds, purchased by its owner 40 years ago from another private collector, is an Australian Aboriginal shield of a type used by groups in southeastern Australia, in the Murray River region in Victoria and New South Wales. It is designed to provide protection from clubs and boomerangs in close combat. Like most examples of this type, it is carved from a single board, measures 34 inches in length and the front is decorated with a pattern of white clay and red ocher.

While pieces like this have been picked up quite cheaply as unappreciated tribal art and moldered away as decorative items in private collections since the turn of the 19th century, they are now highly sought-after Australian cultural artifacts—many of them making their way back home to Australia, snapped up by dealers there when they do come up for auction.

Values have been climbing dramatically, as this particular shield sold last year for £35,000 (about $54,000 in U.S. dollars), nearly 10 times what its former owner though it was worth.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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