The proof is in the painting — or is it?
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