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Expatriate Australian businessman buys Aboriginal sacred object to return to the Aborigines

ELLEN FANNING: Australia has lost sacred Aboriginal artefacts for the want of a few thousand dollars. The auction house, Christies, went ahead with the sale in London last night, despite the objections of Aboriginal groups in Australia and the protests of the Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Robert Tickner. But an expatriate Australian businessman and race horse owner was able to rescue one lot. Wayne Heathcote paid $1,700 for a churinga which he will return to its original owners. Robert Bolton went along to the auction for A.M.

ROBERT BOLTON: The four items formed part of a 330 lot sale of tribal art from around the world. Much of it came from Australia but four items in particular were identified by Aborigines as having special sacred significance. After representations to Canberra, the Minister intervened to prevent the sale, stopping short of buying the items on behalf of the Government. Christies, the auctioneer, went ahead, saying they were fully aware of the sensitivities involved.

The items, a bullroarer and three churingas, were not shown on the in-house video monitor and were not on public display. Bidding, from which the media was excluded, was brief, and Mr Heathcote succeeded in buying one of the three churingas. Outside the building he explained his interest.

WAYNE HEATHCOTE: I collect and deal in tribal art and come to all these auctions; live here in London.

ROBERT BOLTON: Do you know that the Australian Government tried to stop the sale of the item that you bought?

WAYNE HEATHCOTE: I heard that, and I think they're right. These are sacred objects and they should be kept in Australia. And it was my intention to buy this and it will be given back to the Australian people.

ROBERT BOLTON: How will you give it back? Will you give it to the Aborigines?

WAYNE HEATHCOTE: It is part of the Aboriginal heritage and it will be given back to the Aboriginal people.

ROBERT BOLTON: Are you a private buyer yourself?

WAYNE HEATHCOTE: Yes, I'm a private buyer of these things. I don't collect much Aboriginal material, but I heard the controversy about these particular items so I thought I would buy this and give it back to the people.

ROBERT BOLTON: Do you know when and where you're going to do that?

WAYNE HEATHCOTE: No, I haven't decided yet. I'll talk to representatives in Australia the next time I'm out there and then decide how to do it.

ROBERT BOLTON: Did anyone ask you to do this - the Aboriginal people or the Australian Government?

WAYNE HEATHCOTE: No, I haven't been approached by anyone. This was just something that I heard; the press had written about it. I was sent newspaper clippings from Australia so I've decided practically on the spur of the moment to give back a little bit of something to the Australian Aboriginals.

ROBERT BOLTON: Were you surprised the Australian Government didn't come to the auction and buy some of these items?

WAYNE HEATHCOTE: Yes, I am surprised at that because we weren't talking a lot of money for the four items in question. So to resolve a very difficult situation, and there has been a lot of publicity about it, let the Australian Government buy it and make a gesture and give it back to the Aboriginal people; then it's resolved straight away.

ROBERT BOLTON: Wayne Heathcote is an Australian businessman who's lived in London for 25 years and describes himself as a wheeler and dealer in Aboriginal art from the Pacific. But artefacts are only one interest for Wayne Heathcote. His preoccupying activity is a horse called Quick Ransom which he's flying to Australia to run in the Melbourne Cup. This is Robert Bolton for A.M.