A creepy collection of shrunken heads, stick-like creatures and a scruffy stuffed monkey has won the country's richest contemporary art award - the $50,000 Walters Prize.

Doomed, Doomed, All Doomed by London-based expat artist Francis Upritchard, 30, was last night named the winner at a dinner at Auckland Art Gallery.

The prize was accepted on Upritchard's behalf by her Auckland dealer, Ivan Anthony, as she is preparing work for the Frieze Art Fair in London and an exhibition in Amsterdam.

The award was presented by judge Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, chief curator of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy. She described Upritchard's work as a collection of imagined artefacts "cherished by archaeologists of the distant future, who fail in their associations and readings thinking that old cigarette butts from that previous civilisation might have been parts of a necklace".

Upritchard was chosen ahead of the three other finalists: Stella Brennan, Phil Dadson and Peter Robinson, who each received $5000.

Doomed, Doomed, All Doomed was first shown at Artspace last year, attracting comment then that it was a wacky, grotesque depiction of apocalyptic gloom. The Walters Prize jury described her work as creating a patently fake past with its strangely pathetic cultural inheritance.

Based in London since 1999, Upritchard is a rising star in the international art scene, exhibiting throughout Europe and Britain, as well as Los Angeles and Melbourne.

Upritchard, who graduated from Ilam Art School in Christchurch in 1997, became embroiled in a row generated by the Mail on Sunday newspaper in 2004 when her partner, British writer Hari Kunzru, declined a literary award sponsored by the paper on the grounds it was xenophobic. It then rounded on Upritchard, accusing her of animal cruelty because of her use of fur. Last night's event was the Walters third biannual award, with previous prizes going to photographer Yvonne Todd and the et al collective. The award was founded in 2002 by benefactors Erika and Robin Congreve and Jenny Gibbs.

All of the Walters Prize finalists' work will remain on show at the New Gallery until November 19.