The missing untitled artwork from the 1980s by Old Tatump and Natuma Tjaltjarri , which will be taken down from the walls of the South Yarra gallery. 4th of June 2012 The Age news Picture by JOE ARMAO

Lost and found: The missing painting will be removed from sale after it was offered for auction as part of the late American billionaire and philanthropist John W Kluge's estate. Photo: Joe Armao

 A SIGNIFICANT Papunya Tula painting missing for more than 10 years has turned up at auction in Melbourne, and its journey — from hanging in a remote Northern Territory health service to yesterday’s withdrawal from sale as part of an American billionaire’s collection — is rockier than Uluru.

The work, catalogued as Old Tatump and Natuma Tjaltjarri (1915-1987), was last month identified by Melbourne-based curator John Kean, formerly arts adviser to Papunya Tula Artists and the interim administrator for Pintupi Homelands Health Service at Walungurru (or Kintore) community in the NT in the mid-80s.

Mr Kean says he commissioned the work, depicting the  journey of the Pintupi and Luritja people from Papunya, where they unhappily lived from 1957 to 1981, to their homeland 530 kilometres west of Alice Springs, from artist Charlie Wartuma, a founder of Papunya.

The work was part of the late American billionaire and philanthropist John W. Kluge’s collection being sold tomorrow night through Mossgreen Auctions to benefit Columbia University, where Mr Kluge studied. It will now be repatriated to the health service for its historic, not financial, worth.

Dubious sales have plagued this important art movement, and establishing provenance remains the most challenging issue facing the indigenous Australian art market today — and this painting, despite the happy ending, is no exception.

Several weeks ago, Mr Kean was showing a slide of the  large acrylic on plywood story board during a lecture at the Victorian Arts Centre, explaining it had disappeared 10 years ago, when a member of the audience told him it was in the latest Mossgreen catalogue under a different title.

Mr Kean, who believes it is the work he commissioned despite the title difference, alerted Mossgreen’s indigenous art specialist, Shaun Dennison, and Pintupi Health Service board.
Mr Dennison traced the provenance and the Pintupi Health Service board wrote to Columbia University explaining the work’s historic significance, requesting the work’s donation.

Mr Dennison says he believes the painting’s disappearance from the health service goes back further. Documentation shows it was purchased by the Mr Kluge in 1996.

Mr Dennison cites four prior owners – a ranger in the Kintore area, Peter Bartlett; Yuendumu community dealer Peter Van Groesen; Kimberly Art director Peter Harrison; and the Museum Art International Adelaide director, David Cossey.

Mr Kean said last night that discussions he had had with senior health worker at Pintupi Health Service, Marlene Nampitjinpa, and board member, Tommy Conway, indicated that the painting had been “illegally taken” from the health service.

Mrs Nampitjinpa, who still works at the health service, says “it must have been wrapped in a blanket at night time and taken away”.