Bonhams & Goodman Adelaide Ethnographic Auction

Ethnographic Sale, Monday 27th October 2008, Adelaide

There has been another remarkable find of great historical importance in South Australia. Following the exciting discovery in 2001 of the Burke and Wills breastplate awarded to the Cooper’s Creek aborigines, two Adelaide brothers recalled that their Great Uncle had bequeathed them an identical breastplate on his death in 1963. But where was it? They hunted high and low before finding it at the bottom of an old box, underneath a photograph album compiled by their uncle, Mounted Constable James de Pury. De Pury was a fine photographer who sold prints to the Adelaide press in the 1920s, when he was based at Innamincka.

burke-and-wills-brestplate.jpgThe breastplate was one of three commissioned by the Burke and Wills Exploration Committee in 1861. Each brass “medal” was inscribed “Presented to (blank) by the Exploration Committee of Victoria for the Humanity shown to the explorers Burke, Wills and King. 1861.” This award is one of the first occasions in Australian history which recognises that a debt existed to indigenous people. Without their assistance, John King would have died.

The three brass breastplates were presented to the Cooper’s Creek people by Alfred Howitt, leader of the Recovery Expedition. Now only one remains to be found.

The tragic Burke and Wills Expedition, during which seven men died, was the most dramatic event in the history of colonial Australia. 15,000 cheered them off, and up to 100,000 attended Burke and Wills’ funeral. The expedition is remembered to this day as a monument to great hopes dashed by incompetence and bad luck.

Mounted Constable de Pury bought the breastplate from an elderly and almost blind aborigine who said he had assisted Burke and Wills as a teenager. De Pury’s many duties as the lone policeman in a vast region included care of the Yandruwandha people of Cooper’s Creek, distributing rations. He became interested in aboriginal culture, collecting many artefacts.

De Pury was no ordinary country policeman. His photographs are the best documentation of daily life in the Far North of the 1920s. Many are held in the State Library. But this new find consists of 112 prints, many never seen before. They will be sold with the breastplate. De Pury was descended from aristocratic Swiss-French Huguenots, vignerons who migrated to Australia at the behest of their aunt Sophie de Montmollin, wife of Victoria’s first Lieutenant-Governor, Charles La Trobe. De Pury had a good claim to be known as Baron de Pury, but such pretensions did not fit the temper of the Australian outback. De Pury, an immensely strong man and former boxing champion, had all the skills to survive and thrive in a harsh desert world.

De Pury fell from grace in 1928, when he was caught faking declarations for the lucrative dingo scalp bounty. De Pury and his “dogger” mates went to prison. Upon his release in 1930 he returned to run the Innamincka pub for twenty years. The locals respected de Pury, welcoming him back as if nothing had happened.

The breastplate, photographs and aboriginal artefacts represent a unique link with a vanished way of life, both European and aboriginal. They will be offered for sale at Bonhams & Goodman’s Ethnographic Auction in Adelaide on Monday 27th October,2008.

Permission for the sale of the items has not yet been received from the office of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation but the sale is anticipated to proceed without complication given the precedent set in May 2008 when a companion breast plate was sold by Bonhams & Goodman for $216,000, including buyer’s premium.

Auction info

1.The Burke & Wills/King Medal in the form of a brass breast plate made for presentation to members of the Yandruwandha People of Copper Creek, 1861 for Courage and Humanitarianism.
Estimate: $80,000 – 120,000