FOR OUR ANNUAL ART ISSUE, WE TAKE AN IN-DEPTH LOOK AT A BOOK THAT EXPLORES THE BRETT WHITELEY ART FRAUD CASE. PLUS, A SELECTION OF BOOKS THAT WILL TAKE YOU TO ANOTHER TIME AND PLACE.
WHITELEY ON TRIAL
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.”