The proof is in the paint­ing — or is it?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Pa­tri­cia An­der­son

Ru­mours had washed around the Aus­tralian art world since 2010 con­cern­ing two ‘‘Brett White­ley’’ paint­ings, Big Blue Laven­der Bay and Or­ange Laven­der Bay, that had been sold to two Syd­ney busi­ness­men for $2.5 mil­lion and $1.1m re­spec­tively in 2007 and 2009. The ru­mours sug­gested they were fakes, and not par­tic­u­larly good ones at that.

In 2014, art dealer Peter Gant and art restorer Mo­hamed Aman Sid­dique were ar­rested on fraud charges. Their trial in April last year elec­tri­fied the art world. It was thought the case would shine a bright light into the dark cor­ners of the art world, where un­sus­pect­ing col­lec­tors ex­changed dizzy­ing sums for works of ques­tion­able au­then­tic­ity.

Melbourne arts writer Gabriella Coslovich en­tered this par­tic­u­lar dark cor­ner when she de­cided to write about the ge­n­e­sis of the case and its un­ex­pected out­comes.

Her sharp, in­ci­sive anal­y­sis and her clar­ity of style (with echoes of Amer­i­can writer Janet Mal­colm) takes the reader on a jour­ney that is a court­room thriller as well as an ex­am­i­na­tion of a le­gal sys­tem that can seem im­pa­tient.

The paint­ings were present in the court­room from the start — like two ab­ject pris­on­ers hauled up from a dun­geon — and the judge showed ir­ri­ta­tion with ex­pert wit­nesses who spoke about their ‘‘short­com­ings’’. Pro­fes­sional ob­ser­va­tions of hair’s-breadth ac­cu­racy, born of years of anal­y­sis and scru­tiny, were dis­missed as ‘‘in­tan­gi­bles’’ and mere opinion.

When Wendy White­ley spoke in court, she was crisp about the two works: “fake, dead, stiff, wrong”. Oth­ers with knowl­edge of White­ley’s oeu­vre pro­vided more de­tails. The brush­work in the two paint­ings cut in around the im­ages, whereas White­ley painted over im­ages. The works lacked flu­id­ity, move­ment and oc­ca­sional translu­cency in the brush­strokes and mark-mak­ing. They had none of the “vigour, spon­tane­ity, tex­ture and art­ful ac­ci­dents” of White­ley’s ver­i­fi­able can­vases. Fur­ther, the place­ment of White­ley’s trade­mark iconog­ra­phy, such as birds, boats, piers democ­racy seems to sink deeper into the mud. Walsh’s res­cue plan is a bold one. He en­vis­ages a one-house repub­lic (no Se­nate), with a pres­i­dent elected ev­ery four years.

That pres­i­dent will sit atop a coun­cil of ad­vis­ers whose pri­mary role will be to ap­point Aus­tralians of proven com­pe­tence to ‘‘non­po­lit­i­cal’’ po­si­tions such as the ABC board, the bench of the High Court, royal com­mis­sions and the Aus­tralian Elec­toral Com­mis­sion. The coun­cil mem­bers will be non-po­lit­i­cal too, cho­sen for, and mo­ti­vated by, their com­mit­ment to pub­lic ser­vice. Ideally they will be ‘‘liv­ing trea­sures’’ able to unite the coun­try.

Be­neath this will sit the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, also elected ev­ery four years, in the mid­dle of the pres­i­den­tial cy­cle. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives will be ei­ther ‘‘closed’’ or ‘‘open’’, with the for­mer elected anony­mously on a (re­designed) con­stituency ba­sis and the lat­ter elected by non­con­stituency vot­ers who have shopped around for the can­di­date who seems best to rep­re­sent their val­ues. and palm trees, was and pas­tiche-like”.

In 2007, a book­binder who worked up­stairs in Sid­dique’s art con­ser­va­tion ware­house in Melbourne’s Collingwood had taken a se­quence of pho­tographs of two paint­ings in progress, one or­ange and the other blue, in the style of White­ley.

A book of White­ley’s art was open at a dou­ble-page spread of his paint­ing Or­ange Laven­der Bay. Later, in­fra-red im­agery of the two sus­pect paint­ings showed un­char­ac­ter­is­tic ‘‘un­der­draw­ing’’ con­sis­tent with the un­der­draw­ing on the works from Sid­dique’s stu­dio.

Yet Gant in­sisted the works had been painted in 1988. The ev­i­dence for this hinged on their ap­pear­ance in a 1989 cat­a­logue, one that had dis­ap­peared with­out trace.

Coslovich has as­sem­bled a lively cast of char­ac­ters from the case: in­ves­tiga­tive of­fi­cers, in­sti­tu­tional con­ser­va­tors, pho­tog­ra­phers, art deal­ers, print­ers, gallery own­ers, gallery as­sis­tants, art col­lec­tors, pros­e­cu­tors, bar­ris­ters and a judge.

The jury found the men guilty. The art world cel­e­brated. But ear­lier this year the court of ap­peal re­versed the guilty ver­dict and the art dealer and the restorer walked free. Whether the paint­ings are real or fakes re­mains an open ques­tion.

The on­go­ing dilemma for the art mar­ket is that fakes are pro­lif­er­at­ing. While those pur­chased by state gal­leries such as the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria’s ‘‘Van Gogh self-por­trait” are de­moted in the full glare of pub­lic scru­tiny, in­di­vid­ual buy­ers are of­ten obliged to lick their wounds in pri­vate, and per­haps seek to rein­tro­duce the work back into the mar­ket­place through a sym­pa­thetic dealer or auc­tion house, a clas­sic ex­am­ple of pass the par­cel.

“The law de­manded proof ‘be­yond rea­son­able doubt’ that a crime had been com­mit­ted,’’ Coslovich writes. “The art mar­ket de­manded the op­po­site, rea­son­able proof that an art­work was gen­uine.’’ No­tions of au­then­tic­ity, she ar­gues, seem “be­yond the scope of the law. The ques­tion is do we, as cul­ture, care?”

Ul­ti­mately both buy­ers were left with paint­ings that will never eas­ily re-en­ter the mar­ket. Coslovich’s in­tri­cately re­searched story is a cau­tion­ary tale. “con­trolled, con­trived is an au­thor and ed­i­tor.

It will be up to in­di­vid­ual vot­ers what kind of rep they choose to support, but Walsh’s ex­pec­ta­tion and hope is that most will plump for the open reps, whom elec­tors will be able to pe­ti­tion di­rectly.

Fi­nally it will be up to the rep­re­sen­ta­tives to choose the Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter, whose job is to ap­point govern­ment min­is­ters and smooth the pas­sage of leg­is­la­tion through the house.

Leg­is­la­tion will be pro­posed by the reps, and ex­perts in­vited to talk on top­ics rel­e­vant to each bill. Po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy will oc­cur out­side par­lia­ment, with rep­re­sen­ta­tives who ally them­selves with one or other of the ma­jor par­ties (again, this is Walsh’s ex­pec­ta­tion) un­able to at­tract as many vot­ers as those of a more in­de­pen­dent cast of mind.

All this is set out with clar­ity and wit, and en route Walsh makes some in­ter­est­ing points about the ef­fects on Aus­tralian democ­racy of stu­dent pol­i­tics, po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions, party grand­stand­ing and ‘‘post-fact abuse’’. But there’s a tech­no­cratic streak in his think­ing — one that sur­vives his (rea­son­able) de­sire to make our democ­racy more rep­re­sen­ta­tive. His sug­ges­tion that ex­perts, not politi­cians, should b be given the floor in par­lia­men­tary de­bates re­veals, I think, a wrong­headed idea of what pol­i­tics is, or en­tails, and this serves to un­der­mine his project.

He re­gards ‘‘ad­ver­sar­ial’’ pol­i­tics as a prob­lem and seeks to separate the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process from ques­tions of ide­ol­ogy.

But the idea that leg­is­la­tion can b be ar­gued for ‘‘on its ev­i­dence-based mer­its’’ is a cat­e­gory mis­take; there are no ‘‘right’’ an­swers to po­lit­i­cal ques­tions, be­cause pol­i­tics in­volves a bat­tle for re­sources and con­flict­ing ideas about how they should be al­lo­cated.

Walsh writes that our ad­ver­sar­ial pol­i­tics has its roots in Bri­tish le­gal tra­di­tions. Maybe so. But they lie too in our class di­vi­sions, and Walsh’s faith in the good sense of ex­perts is it- self an as­pect of ‘‘knowl­edge-class’’ think­ing. Cer­tainly his sug­ges­tion that the GST was a bril­liant piece of leg­is­la­tion held up on the La­bor side by cow­ardice and ex­pe­di­ency — as if no one on the left had ever made an ar­gu­ment against re­gres­sive tax­a­tion — re­flects his own po­lit­i­cal bias.

Still, at least Walsh is think­ing cre­atively about how to re­fine the rep­re­sen­ta­tive model in or­der that it can func­tion more ef­fec­tively. By con­trast, Steve Richards’s Rise of the Out­siders is a de­fence of the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, al­beit with some caveats.

An anal­y­sis of the move­ments that have mounted a chal­lenge to the lib­eral cen­tre in re­cent years, this book rec­om­mends not a shift in the lo­cus of power, nor an al­ter­ation to its in­sti­tu­tions but a change in the at­ti­tudes and ex­pec­ta­tions of politi­cians and pub­lic alike.

For Richards the pop­ulist in­sur­gency — the tit­u­lar ‘‘rise of the out­siders’’ — is a species of anti-pol­i­tics that fails to take ac­count of re­al­ity. Though he crit­i­cises the ‘‘in­sid­ers’’ for their faith in mar­kets — the cen­tre-left is re­buked for its spine­less­ness in this re­gard, the cen­tre-right for

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