Gabriella Coslovich, Mel­bourne Univer­sity Press, $32.99

At first I thought: “Why is Coslovich giv­ing us all this clothes, hair and fin­ger­nails stuff? This isn’t a ro­mance where the hero’s eyes darken quizzi­cally or the hero­ine’s Blah­niks go ker-lip­pity ker-lop­pity across the Villeroy and Boch tiles of his bath­room floor.” Grad­u­ally I re­alised that this pre­pos­ter­ous but true story of three al­leged art frauds de­pends on what one per­son sees as much as what the doughty lawyers (18 of them) con­trib­ute as ev­i­dence. So the reader needs to main­tain a con­tin­u­ous inner vi­sion. By pro­vid­ing a con­stant stream of vis­ual de­tails, Coslovich tu­tors the reader to imag­ine the scene un­fold­ing, as well as to pay at­ten­tion to facts. A pro­fes­sional art critic or an aca­demic might have been tempted to tell this story ob­jec­tively. Coslovich, how­ever, places her­self front and cen­tre. Her re­ac­tions and in­ves­tiga­tive chutz­pah give an al­ready com­pelling nar­ra­tive its huge mo­men­tum. The bare facts are that three paint­ings, al­leged to be White­leys, ap­pear to have been cre­ated by the ex­pert con­ser­va­tor Aman Sid­dique and traded by the mav­er­ick Mel­bourne dealer Peter Gant. At the begin­ning of her re­port, Coslovich lists, with notes, the 60 in­di­vid­u­als who are ger­mane to the case. Such a bless­ing. I’ll list some key points of ev­i­dence in due course, but first let’s savour the line-up of char­ac­ters. One by one Coslovich meets up with the po­lice, the artists, the deal­ers, the lawyers, and a host of not-quite-in­no­cent by­standers in their shops and cafés and nooks in big, old build­ings. They stut­ter, they clam up, they flirt, they swag­ger. And, since the prepa­ra­tion of this cliffhanger ac­count took nearly two years, there are some who age vis­i­bly un­der the mount­ing pres­sure. Steve Nasteski is a car dealer. He loves vin­tage top-of-the-range sports mod­els. On a car he can make, say, $50,000 profit; on an art­work, $200,000 profit. He makes it sound like steal­ing sweets from a baby. He refers to a White­ley draw­ing in his pos­ses­sion as ‘porno art’. There’s Gant, the art dealer, the de­fen­dant, with twin­kling eyes and reck­less ban­ter. The tale Gant tells turns into a Greek tragedy, as he con­fesses his con­tempt for the wealthy. Be­neath the hand-sewn suit he’s an un­re­con­structed leftie with debts nudg­ing eight fig­ures. Then there’s Tom Gy­orffy QC, Crown Pros­e­cu­tor, whose ‘shape sug­gested some­one who sat­is­fied his pas­sions with­out guilt’. As well as ma­jor ir­ri­tant to Jus­tice Michael Croucher, Wendy White­ley, Brett White­ley’s ex-wife and stu­dio aide, has been all over the me­dia for decades — and who can blame her for shout­ing? How­ever, Coslovich re­hu­man­ises her. And what about Elmyr de Hory? Artist his­to­ri­ans will tin­gle at the mere men­tion of the name. He is his­tory’s most fa­mous forger. (You would be sur­prised at how many es­tab­lished artists yearn to pro­duce a con­vinc­ing forgery.) De Hory is the pseu­do­nym of Coslovich’s most valu­able in­for­mant. He sends anony­mous emails to her. Will you fig­ure out who it is by the end of the book? I didn’t. Back to the ev­i­dence. On March 5, 2014, po­lice ar­rested Aman Sid­dique for his part in a $4.5 mil­lion art fraud. The next morn­ing they ar­rested Peter Gant. In the eyes of the law, it doesn’t seem to mat­ter whether Sid­dique pro­duces fakes. That’s OK. You can even sell them as long as you de­scribe them un­equiv­o­cally as pseudo-white­leys. It is not even il­le­gal to write ‘Brett White­ley’ on the forgery. The only crime is to sell fakes as gen­uine orig­i­nals.

At the first trial in April and May 2016, Jus­tice Croucher ad­vised the jury that a ‘guilty’ judg­ment would be ‘un­safe’. Nev­er­the­less, the jury found Sid­dique and Gant guilty on all three charges of ob­tain­ing money de­ceit­fully. They were sen­tenced, Gant to five years in prison, Sid­dique to three. They ap­pealed. Croucher granted them bail, which was rather un­usual. At the ap­peal hear­ing in July, the Crown Pros­e­cu­tor Su­san Borg was told 40 min­utes be­fore the court sit­ting that the Of­fice of Pub­lic Prose­cu­tions would drop the case. She had not been con­sulted about this last-minute ca­pit­u­la­tion. Her in­ten­sive prepa­ra­tion had been for naught. The three ap­pel­late judges swiftly came to a con­clu­sion. The con­vic­tion did not hold. Gant and Sid­dique walked free. So what ex­actly hap­pened back in 2007 and why? Kindly Sid­dique al­lowed Guy Morel, a book­binder, to use space in Sid­dique’s Colling­wood stu­dio. In Oc­to­ber 2007 Morel looked into a room that was usu­ally locked and saw a paint­ing in progress that looked like a White­ley next to a known and au­then­tic White­ley. When the stu­dio was empty, Morel climbed a lad­der and looked over the top of the par­ti­tions which formed the small work­room. (In­ci­den­tally, his pho­tographs showed that the key was in the out­side lock, so he didn’t need to use a lad­der.) He dan­gled his cam­era down and took pho­tographs of the works in progress, seem­ingly iden­ti­cal to White­ley’s Big Blue Laven­der Bay (BBLB) and Orange Laven­der Bay (OLB) — two of the sus­pect works that would be­come part of the trial. The BBLB was bought by banker An­drew Prid­ham for $2.5 mil­lion later that year and the OLB sold to Steven Nasteski in 2009 for $1.1 mil­lion. Dur­ing the trial the un­der­draw­ings that ap­peared in Morel’s pho­tographs were com­pared to in­fra-red im­ages of what lay be­neath OLB and BBLB. They were in­dis­putably the same un­der­draw­ings. More­over, Wendy White­ley had stated that Brett didn’t do un­der­draw­ings, just marks to lo­cate el­e­ments. Analy­ses of frames and ma­te­ri­als yielded am­bigu­ous re­sults, but the doors on which the works were painted were iden­ti­cal to ones or­dered by Sid­dique in 2007. Surely this was enough to send Gant and Sid­dique to jail. No. If the de­fence could prove that OLB and BBLB ex­isted be­fore Brett died in 1992 then the court would al­low that the works in Sid­dique’s bolt­hole were merely copies of the orig­i­nals, even though nei­ther of these sup­posed copies could be pro­duced to sup­port that the­ory. Prid­ham’s and Nasteski’s pur­chases would not be chal­lenged. (Though, ac­cord­ing to the ex­perts, Prid­ham and the cur­rent owner of OLB, Steven Drake, would never be able to sell. Re­gard­less of any court judge­ments, the art world has de­cided the paint­ings are tainted.) So, in re­sponse to the call for proof that the paint­ings ex­isted be­fore White­ley died, the de­fence team rus­tled up cat­a­logue proofs of an ex­hi­bi­tion A Pri­vate Af­fair, which mys­te­ri­ously was never ac­tu­ally pub­li­cised and never ac­tu­ally oc­curred. (Gant said he can­celled the show be­cause his part­ner died.) OLB was fea­tured as an ex­hibit in this non-event. The team also man­aged to source a con­sign­ment book with the sus­pect paint­ings listed as ar­riv­ing at Gant’s gallery on June 28, 1988. The wit­ness, Rose­mary Mil­burn, who was quizzed on this de­liv­ery said the paint­ings were wrapped so she did not see them and the only thing she could con­firm for sure was her own sig­na­ture. She con­cluded that the in­for­ma­tion writ­ten on the dock­ets must be cor­rect. Now, what a court is sup­posed to do in an art fraud case is not only check the au­then­tic­ity of the works but chal­lenge the prove­nance of the sus­pect items. But Vic­to­ria has no spe­cial art fraud unit and, in this in­stance, both the judge and the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tors were self-con­fessed am­a­teurs when it came to art. Coslovich’s post-trial fos­sick­ing turned up ev­i­dence which sug­gested the cat­a­logue proof was a fake and Gant’s con­sign­ment book had ap­par­ently been tam­pered with. The court called 25 wit­nesses. The sto­ries they tell Coslovich are dif­fer­ent from what they are al­lowed to say in court. The ac­cused dealer, Peter Gant, had a his­tory of sus­pect deals. In 2010 he’d sold paint­ings al­leged to be by Al­bert Tucker, Robert Dick­er­son and Charles Black­man. They had later been ex­posed as fakes. Gant had a bay­ing mob of cred­i­tors. He owed An­drew Prid­ham $1.1 mil­lion and the hap­less café owner Guy Ang­win waited in vain to be re­paid the $950,000 he’d loaned to Gant. A jury, how­ever, must be shel­tered from any back­ground in­for­ma­tion that could sway their judg­ment. Gant and Sid­dique ex­ploited their right to re­main silent. So it was up to the pros­e­cu­tion to find peo­ple who would dob them in but with­out re­fer­ring to any pos­si­ble crimes in the past. Not easy. In a Four Cor­ners pro­gram in 2009, Quentin Mcder­mott de­duced that 10 per cent of art resold in Australia is sus­pect. How­ever, few lawyers and judges are up to speed on the art scene. In­ter­vie­wees’ com­ments to Coslovich — such as “no-one died” and “the paint­ings are rub­bish any­way” — be­tray a car­ni­val at­mos­phere un­be­fit­ting of a ma­jor issue. As Coslovich points out, if it was coun­ter­feit money and not coun­ter­feit paint­ings, the trial would have been con­ducted with greater rigour. Train­ing and ex­per­tise within and be­yond the po­lice force are long over­due. After feed­ing us richly de­tailed in­for­ma­tion right up to the last pages, Coslovich ends her re­port on a note of mys­tery. She vis­its Gant’s old friend who is paint­ing Gant’s por­trait. He tells her some­thing im­por­tant. She keeps it to her­self. A true Scheherazade. We are left long­ing to hear more. >

“Her in­ves­tiga­tive chutz­pah give an al­ready com­pelling nar­ra­tive its huge mo­men­tum.”

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