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A painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, one of the giants of the Aboriginal art movement, has set a new record price for the genre - but his family will not see a cent of the money.

More than 400 well-heeled dealers and collectors flocked to Sotheby's in Melbourne last week for the much-hyped sale of Clifford Possum's epic 1977 work, Warlugulong. It went under the hammer for A$2.4 million ($2.7 million), more than doubling the previous record, set two months ago when a painting by the renowned artist, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, broke the A$1 million barrier for the first time.

But while the Aboriginal art market is "not so much booming as exploding", as one Australian commentator wrote, it is the galleries and auction houses that are benefiting. Despite international acclaim, Clifford Possum - who was presented to the Queen in 1990 - was almost penniless when he died in Alice Springs in 2002. He originally sold Warlugulong for $1200, and that was all he ever received for it.

In Australia, there have been mounting calls for artists, or their estates, to be given a percentage of the spiralling sums for which their works change hands. But a parliamentary committee that conducted a year-long inquiry into an industry worth up to A$300 million a year dismissed the idea of "resale royalties" in a report in June.

Born in a dried-up creek bed in the Northern Territory, Clifford Possum was a stockman and skilled wood-carver before becoming a pioneer of the Western Desert style of "dot painting".

Aborigines had been painting for millennia - on bark, on their bodies, and in the sand. In 1971 a white teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, gave brushes and paints to a group of men at a run-down desert settlement, Papunya Tula. They set down their ancient "Dreamtime" - or creation - stories on pieces of old board, and then on canvas. Clifford Possum was one of those men.

Few white Australians valued the paintings then, and it was two decades before the market really embraced Aboriginal work. But Clifford Possum achieved early recognition, and by 1988 had been given a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Two years later he went to Buckingham Palace, resplendent in a rented morning suit and painted tennis shoes, with a paintbrush stuck through the band of his top hat.

Warlugulong is one of five massive canvases Clifford Possum produced in the 1970s, mapping his ancestral lands and their creation stories. It is regarded as one of his greatest works - and, by some, as one of the outstanding 20th century paintings. Had it received an export licence, it would undoubtedly have sold for far more. As it was, the National Gallery of Australia snapped it up.

But the work described as the "Sistine Chapel of Western Desert dot painting" was not always appreciated. After the original sale, it ended up in the collection of Australia's Commonwealth Bank, and languished on the wall of a cafeteria in one of the bank's training centres for 20 years. In 1996 it was bought for A$36,000 by a dealer, Hank Ebes, who hung it in his home for a decade.

The painting's central story is that of the mythical Blue-Tongued Lizard Man, who started a bushfire after his two sons killed a kangaroo but failed to share the meat with him. Other sacred stories are woven around it.

The Papunya Tula artists formed a co-operative that still thrives today, and Clifford Possum was its chairman in the late 1970s. A gentle man with a light-hearted sense of humour, he was awarded the Order of Australia shortly before he died.

- Independent