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Specialists Francesca Cavazzini and Greer Adams will run the department under the aegis of Tim Klingender, who will act as a senior consultant.

That all three department members previously worked in this niche area for Sotheby's is symptomatic of the fluctuations across Australia's auction houses since former chairman Tim Goodman severed ties with Bonhams late last year. Goodman bought the rights to trade as Sotheby's in Australia.

Bonhams themselves relaunched their brand in the Southern hemisphere in June with the headline sale of the AUS$13.1m Owston collection putting them firmly back on the map.

With new premises, an expert team and the active role of Robert Brooks (who was personally involved in securing the Owston consignment), Bonhams propose to hold two Aboriginal art sales per year and compete with Sotheby's in the relatively small but financially and emotionally significant market.

But is the pond now too small for two big fish? Bonhams' bold move (a microcosm of the wider battle for control of the cream of the Australian auction business) comes at a difficult moment for the Aboriginal art market which, along with Australian art in general, hit its peak in 2007.

In that year Sotheby's sold Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri's epic early canvas Warlugulong, 1977, to the National Gallery of Australia for a record AUS$2.4m with overall sales in this sector exceeding AUS$23m.

Indigenous art sales this year have totalled a modest AUS$8.4m, with the November 30 Aboriginal sale at Sotheby's (conducted without the input of their rainmaker Tim Kilingender) well below par, totalling AUS$625,620 and with a selling rate of just 32 per cent.

By Marika Clemow