Unpacking the Collection

Part of the series One World Archaeology pp 29-53


“Suitable for Decoration of Halls and Billiard Rooms”: Finding Indigenous Agency in Historic Auction and Sale Catalogues

  • Robin TorrenceAffiliated withAustralian MuseumSchool of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney Email author 
  • , Anne ClarkeAffiliated withDepartment of Archaeology, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney

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At first glance, auction and sale catalogues of ethnographic artefacts dating to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries appear to record merely the desires of colonial collectors. Our detailed study of changes in proveniences, types and prices shows how an archaeological approach to assemblages coupled with appropriate analytical strategies can uncover changing patterns of negotiation between indigenous makers and western consumers. We begin with a broad regional comparison of cross-cultural interaction as witnessed in the catalogues and then turn to a finer scale case study based on catalogue entries relating to the colony of British New Guinea, commonly called Papua. These analyses provide insights into how indigenous artefact producers and traders in the Pacific region made creative responses to market opportunities.