Fortune or fake: Inside a true-crime story with an art twist

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It’s 35 years since Brett Whiteley painted the large canvases known as Big Blue Lavender Bay and Orange Lavender Bay in his studio in Sydney. Alternatively, it’s 16 years since conservator Mohamed Aman Siddique painted them in his studio in Melbourne, and almost as long since art dealer Peter Gant passed them off to unsuspecting buyers as the real deal, fetching $2.5 million and $1.1 million respectively.

It’s 13 years since one of those purchasers, Steven Nasteski, began to suspect he had been sold a pup and demanded his money back, seven years since a Supreme Court jury found Gant and Siddique guilty of obtaining a financial advantage by deception, and six years since a court of appeal overturned that verdict and acquitted the men, ostensibly clearing their names while leaving the status of those paintings in the art-world equivalent of Purgatory known as “disputed”. (The appeals judges made no findings on the authenticity of the paintings.)

Writer-director Yaara Bou Melman delves into a fascinating chapter of art forgery in Australia in the documentary The Whiteley Art Scandal.

And now that long, complicated and ultimately unresolved history is revisited by writer-director Yaara Bou Melhem and producer Ivan O’Mahoney in the compelling two-part documentary series The Whiteley Art Scandal.

“We wanted to do a story in the true crime genre with an art twist. From a storytelling perspective, that was really interesting to us,” says Melhem, who has raked over the coals of this fascinating tale of alleged art fraud and brought it to blazing life.

In great detail, and drawing extensively on the work and on-screen testimony of former Age journalist Gabriella Coslovich, who covered the trial for this masthead and wrote the superb book Whiteley on Trial in 2017, the series recounts the saga with the aid of many of the major players. Astonishingly, Gant is among them.

How on earth did you manage to get him?

“I often asked myself the same question, ‘why are you agreeing to talk to us?’,” Melhem says. The answer she came up with was as complicated as the case itself.

“Peter Gant is no stranger to … media attention, so this is not an unusual process for him. I think he felt quite comfortable talking to us.”

He also wanted to talk about and show the collage works he was making, in which the two works at the centre of the trial are central elements; it’s what Melhem calls his “art therapy”.

Whatever he might have done or not done, she says, “he’s actually quite personable, quite easy to talk to. He’s very good at finding out how he can relate to you and keeping relationships like that. So it wasn’t a difficult process with Peter Gant.”

There were, she adds as an aside, “some other people who were more difficult to deal with”.

Exhibit A: Big Blue Lavender Bay outside the Supreme Court of Victoria in 2016.Credit: Justin McManus

Are you going to tell us who?

“No,” she says, chuckling. “Of course not.”

There are property developers, stockbrokers, barristers, detectives, fine art experts, people who have lost a lot of money, and some who have perhaps made a lot through the course of this saga. And all are deployed in a tale that is both its own thing and a pointer to a much larger picture.

Brett Whiteley was, at the time of his death in 1992, one of Australia’s most successful and high-profile artists. In the years since, his reputation, and the value of his works, has only grown. His output has been extensively documented, and in his former wife Wendy – who is also interviewed in the series – he has an expert arbiter of what is legitimately his work and what is, or is likely to be, fake.

Yet, for all of that, these paintings could emerge into and remain suspended in that netherworld of uncertain provenance and authenticity. The last recorded value of the orange painting, the series reveals, was $15,000. The blue one, for which Sydney Swans chairman Andrew Pridham paid $2.5 million in 2009, was donated to the art department of the University of Melbourne, where its main function seems to be to occupy a significant chunk of precious storage space.

That all points to the big question of how much more fake, or at the very least problematic, artwork is in our galleries, our museums, and in private hands.

“If this could happen over works like this, that were as big and bold and related to one of the most well-known artists in Australia, what else is there,” Melhem asks. “We wanted to tease away at that, and to get a sense of what’s at stake for our history and the cultural integrity of our art.”

It’s not an easy question to answer. Fine art expert Robyn Sloggett suggests that as much as 10 per cent of the works held in collections could be of questionable authenticity. But her expert testimony at trial was shredded by the defence, and dismissed by the judge, who urged the jury to acquit (they ignored his advice).

And that, Melhem says, points to the other big issue at stake here: the inadequacy of the legal system when it comes to dealing with such matters.

“We just don’t seem to have the expertise needed – an art fraud squad or similar central kind of agency that has a record and a corporate memory of all the problematic works that are out there, and who’s dealing with what in terms of art fraud,” she says.

Wendy Whiteley is interviewed in The Whiteley Art Scandal about the authenticity of several paintings attributed to her late husband, Brett.Credit: Louie Douvis

“If a complaint comes to a police station, it’s dealt with internally at that particular police station rather than being sent to a central office that has a record of where these are all happening, and who’s making the complaints, and what work is being complained about, following a chain of where it was sourced from. So you have these instances happening over and over again, but they’re siloed in different police stations around the country, and it’s not followed up in the way that an art fraud squad in the UK or the US may be able to follow up on a particular case.”

One of the great learnings from the trial is that anyone who feels they have been knowingly sold a fake is better off pursuing the matter through civil action than criminal. But it is also hard to escape the feeling that for most people, simply not addressing the problem might be an easier course of action entirely.

As several people note in the series, Melhem says, “it’s in nobody’s interests to reveal that a work is problematic. It’s not in an auction house’s interest, it’s not in the buyer’s interest. It damages the reputation of the industry and makes people question whether or not they can trust what works are being attributed to whom.”

Having taken a deep dive into what she calls “the surprisingly shady underworld of the goings and comings of the fine art world”, I wonder if Melhem might see in this story the makings of a drama.

“There are enough twists and turns in this, and interesting and colourful characters, that could allow it to be a drama for sure,” she says.

And if it did happen, would you be tempted to go there again?

“Oh, it’d be so much easier to shoot,” she says, laughing. “So yes.”

The Whiteley Art Scandal is on ABC, Tuesday September 19 and 26 at 8.30pm.

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