In March 1851, German artist, naturalist and explorer Ludwig Becker arrived in Van Diemens Land, around Launceston. For many months he wandered the land, paying his way by painting miniatures. During this time, Becker painted the portraits of three Tasmanian Aboriginals, Naplomata (Henrietta), Dinudara (Sarah) and Kanjawerki, before heading to Victoria in search of gold.
A decade later, his rare combination of scientific knowledge and artistic ability saw him selected as a member of an exploring expedition, led by Robert O’Hara Burke. Keenly documenting and illustrating what he saw along the way, the slowing ailing Becker succumbed to scurvy and dysentery at the legendary Cooper Creek in 1861.
One hundred and fifty years later, the unknown portraits were brought back into the public spotlight. Consigned for sale to Sotheby’s Australia from a private collection in Finland, the portraits were part of a family heirloom collection traced back to the vendor’s grandmother, daughter of US anthropological film-maker Robert J Flaherty. It is unclear how the portraits made it out of Australia, or when exactly, although seeing as their existence was all but unknown until they were brought to auction, it is possible they were out of the country for over a century.
The miniatures painted by Becker in his early days in Van Diemens Land has resurfaced with a new found importance. Word quickly spread that these were works of particularly notable provenance and utmost cultural significance. Becker’s portraits had become among the few important visual records of this group of Van Diemens Land natives.
Coupled with fact that Becker’s works were rarely offered at public auction, interest from public institutions was strong. Potential buyers include the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, who were keen to acquire the portraits and return them to Tasmania for public display. “They would be great in our collection” said TMAG Director, Peter West. Sotheby’s Australia Chairman and Head of Art, Geoffrey Smith described the works as “absolutely compelling”.
In the week proceeding the auction, media attention drew new eyes to the story of Ludwig Becker. From The Age to the Hobart Mercury, ABC Darwin to Launceston, Australians were hearing about the story of the softly spoken, exceptionally talented German by the name of Ludwig Becker, whose scientific and artistic gifts rendered him one of Australia’s most vital early documenters. On the night, bidding for the works was strongly contested, as the pre-auction interested indicated, and the miniatures sold well for almost triple their estimates.
Only the sixth work of Becker’s to come to public auction, it was a classic example of the power of art to document history, interpret the present, and ensure stories are told well into the future.
On top of the sale price, the inherent value of art is hard to quantify.