15 July 2017

3 fake Brett Whiteley paintings: the nation’s biggest art fraud?

Australia's most famous modern artist, Brett Whiteley, married Wendy Julius in 1962; their only child Arkie (1964-2001) became a talented actress. After the traumatic law case over her late father's will, Arkie developed cancers in her lungs and liver, tragically dying aged 37.

In the meantime, Brett’s career as a painter blossomed. His Sydney Harbour scenes appeared in the collections of all the large Australian galleries, and was twice winner of the presitigious Archibald Prize. He held many exhibitions, living and painting in Australia, Britain and Italy.

In 1967 Whiteley won a scholarship to study and work in the USA. There he met other artists and musicians while he lived at the Hotel Chelsea New York, befriending musicians Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Perhaps in New York, Whiteley became increasingly addicted to her­oin and alcohol.

Back in Australia his work output began to decline, al­though its market value continued to climb. He made several attempts to elim­inate drugs completely, alas unsuccessfully. In 1989, he and Wendy, whom he had always credited as his muse, divorced. Al­th­ough they div­orced three years before Brett’s death from a heroin overdose in 1992, Wendy Whiteley al­ways controlled Brett's estate, including the copyright to his works. She went on to play an imp­or­t­ant role in the estab­lishment of the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

2016
Mark Russell discussed two art men in Melbourne who were found guilty of Austral­ia's biggest art fraud, after selling forged paintings in the style of Brett Whiteley for a total of $3.6 million. In April 2016, the Crown claimed art conservator Mohamed Siddique painted the artworks in his Collingwood studio. Art dealer Peter Gant then passed them off to unsuspecting buyers as or­iginal 1988 Whiteley paintings. At some time in the past Mr Gant had indeed bought a real Whiteley painting, View From The Sitting Room Window Lav­ender Bay for $1.7 mill. This authentic work was then sent to Mr Siddique a short time later, to use as a blue­print to create fake paintings.

Theirs was a joint criminal enterprise for the creation of paintings in the style of Brett Whiteley: Big Blue Lavender Bay, Orange Lavender Bay and Through the Window Lavender Bay. Blue Lavender Bay was sold for $2.5 million to Sydney Swans chairman in 2007 and Orange Laven­d­er Bay sold for $1.1 m to a Sydney luxury car dealer in 2009. The Crown claimed the third fake, Through the Window, was offered for sale by Mr Gant for $950,000.

Brett Whiteley
Blue Lavender Bay, 1988 
sold for $2.5 million. 
Was it a fake?


Brett Whiteley
Orange Lavender Bay, 1988 
sold for $1.1 million. 
Was it also a fake?

The men's defence barristers argued that the sold paintings were Whiteley originals, bought from the artist's manager by Mr Gant and kept in storage for nearly 20 years. And photographer Jeremy James told the court that he had snapped both Big Blue and Orange Lavender Bay for a 1989 Gant catalogue. While the two art dealers readily admitted that the three paintings were not Whiteley's best work, they explained to the court that Whiteley had been a heroin addict in 1988.

Yet no art dealers had the same intimate knowledge of Brett White­ley's work as his widow, Wendy, who was adamant the paintings were fakes. Having lived with Brett’s art since 1962, she was shocked and stunned by the defendants. Her worse fear was that had Gant and Siddique been found not guilty, Brett's real legacy would be negatively affected.

When the 2016 trial heard the evidence, the jury was not allowed to hear about artists Bob Dickerson and Charles Blackman’s successful court case against Peter Gant for selling fake copies of their works. Unfortunately for the artists, Gant was soon declared bank­rupt and wasn’t able to pay them back for their losses.

In the Whiteley case, Justice Michael Croucher ruled the lack of proof had so seriously damaged the Crown's case, the jury could have leave to immediately acquit the men. However the jury still found them guilty: Mr Gant was guilty of two counts of obtaining a finan­cial advantage by deception and one of attempting to obtain a financial advantage by deception involving the three other artworks. Mr Siddique was found guilty of two counts of ob­taining a financial advantage by deception and one count of attempt­ing to obtain a financial advantage by deception.

At the pre-sentence hearing for the two men, Gant got five years and Siddique got three years. In the meantime Justice Croucher provided a detailed report to the Court of Appeal on why he bel­ieved the jury should have acquitted Gant and Siddique of the nation’s biggest alleged art fraud.

Brett Whiteley
Self Portrait in the Studio, 1976
Art Gallery of NSW.
Authentic.


2017
In 2016, both Gant and Suddique had unsuccessfully professed their inn­ocence. So imagine the shock when, as Rebecca Urban reported,  the case fell over in April 2017. After a last-minute concession from prosecutors, the three presiding judges returned to the court and quashed the convictions of Mr Gant and Mr Siddique. The two men walked free from Court of Appeal.

The decision by the Victorian Court of Appeal sent shock­-waves through the art industry. And yet I still cannot find any police officers in this country specifically responsible for tracking art crime nor can I find an effective database for record­ing stolen art. The Whiteley, Dickerson and Blackman cases were not the only art crimes in Australia of course:  in 1977 twenty-seven works by Grace Cossington Smith were stolen from the Macquarie Gallery in NSW and have never been recovered.





19 comments:

Andrew said...

Fake or not I really like the Lavender Bay works.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

That's absolutely astonishing; an intriguing tale. What's the answer?!

Deb said...

Chelsea Hotel again. What a great place that turned out to be for all sorts of artists.

Joseph said...

Why wasn't the jury allowed to hear about artists Bob Dickerson and Charles Blackman’s successful court case against Peter Gant for selling fake copies of their works? The case had been adjudicated back in 2014 and were on the public record.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The problem with a unique, idiosyncratic style is that it makes it easy to copy. Whether or not fakes are attractive does not mitigate with me at all the serious of the crime perpetrated--not only the legal fraud, but the disrespect displayed to the art world in general. Of course, with some fakers, that is the primary goal, but that is not the case with those you told us about, with millions involved.
--Jim

Hels said...

Andrew

I know sod all about modern art, but the Lavender Bay paintings really do stand out. Whiteley's return to Australia in Jan 1970 saw a move to Lavender Bay and a passion for colour and beauty. If viewers loved Matisse, they would have loved this series of large scale paintings, done by Whitely himself or faked up by someone else.

Hels said...

Mike

The ABC News (27th Apr 2017) reported that in May 2016, the pair was found guilty of obtaining and attempting to obtain financial advantage by deception by selling some paintings which resembled the late artist's Lavender Bay series. The men were sentenced in November 2016, but the sentences were _stayed_ because _the trial judge_ believed the guilty verdicts could be quashed on appeal. The judge Justice Michael Croucher noted there was cogent evidence that supported Gant's account that he had purchased the three paintings in 1988.

The Chief Judge of the Appeals Court said the Court of Appeal was not bound by the Crown's concession. But having analysed the appeal and its submissions, the Appeals Court accepted the Crown's position that the guilty verdicts were unsafe and should be quashed. Thus the case will never be taken to court again!

Hels said...

Deb

Brett, Wendy and Arkie loved the Hotel Chelsea in the late 60s, living in the penthouse. The Whiteleys were familiar with the hotel's reputation and particularly enjoyed spending time with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Timothy Leary.

He worked hard on a new show, held at the Marlborough-Gerson Gallery on East 57th Street. It might well have been the best two years in Whiteley's life.



Hels said...

Joseph

very good question. I might need to ask a good legal mind to suggest some answers.

In the meantime, potential art purchasers have been given no idea of what to look out for. Even those who know the artists Bob Dickerson and Charles Blackman well.... may not have heard of the successful court case against Peter Gant for selling fake copies of Dickerson and Blackman's works. Silence is not golden.

Hels said...

Parnassus

art fakers have very mixed motives, agreed. But it is always the private buyer or gallery that pays the price... in lost money and lost reputation. And I don't think a buyer can insure each work he buys, in case it is a fake.

Of course a faker could be gaoled for his crime, but even then, the tricked buyer will not get his money back.

By the way, I am writing a post on a faker who _donated_ his art to museums, but not to enrich himself or to ridicule the establishment. Instead he hoped to be viewed as a charitable patron who would bring honour to his family.

bazza said...

It strikes me that if so-called experts can't easily decide if a picture is real or fake then the worth of an accepted genuine picture must be very tenuous. Setting aside the criminal intent of the forgers, it does shine light upon the bubble that is the art market.
I must say that I find little to respond to in Brett Whiteley's paintings; they seem to be rather devoid of any emotional. I can't accept the comparison with the work of Matisse but I suppose it takes all sorts!
I prefer the work of this artist:
https://todiscoverice.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/painting-of-month-35-december-2012-alex.html

Ann ODyne said...

oh the hypocrisy of the woman guarding the money.

c1970 the wife of a famous artist was apprehended at Perth airport leaving with a suitcase of cash and opiates. there were 2 small paragraphs published and nothing after.
I find it fascinating that this did not result in a criminal charge.
usurping land by making a garden on it is another trick.
and the turbans. a lifetime of turbans. how weird.
So sad for the child of 2 junkies to have a body wrecked by cancers.

Agree with Bazza that the great artist's 'muse-y] oeuvre [of backsides and harbour views] leaves me cold too, whereas the ['cold' at first glance] works of Jeffrey Smart do not.
But your post, as always, was interesting and informative thank you

Hels said...

bazza

the value of any art is tenuous *nod*... which was exactly what the owner of the Brett Whiteley estate was saying. Wendy's worse fear was that as soon as Gant and Siddique were found not guilty, Brett's _real_ legacy would be negatively affected.

The value of art goes up and down, even if fakery is not involved. Rembrandt's worth dropped as rapidly as it had risen: he was declared bankrupt in 1656 and buried in an unmarked pauper's grave. Later you would have to sell a small European country to buy just one Rembrandt.

Hels said...

Ann

it is very strange that some important people are charged with serious crimes and are gaoled; some important people are charged with the same serious crimes and the court finds them not guilty on a technical issue; and other important people are not even charged.

Lady Justice is an allegorical representation of the judicial system's the moral force but that blindfold is a slippery piece of material. It was meant to represent judicial impartiality, but I think it often represents wilful judicial blindness.

AB said...

Hi Hels,

apropos of your Brett post I tender these two tiny reports of The Muse ...
trying to leave town with narcotics+cash. There were never any other reports whatsoever.
Imagine these days how it would be beat-up till we were sick of it.
oh and a conviction. 1970 was Another World.

thanks for the joy of your posts
best regards from AB

Canberra THE AUSTRALIAN in English 5 Apr 77 p1

Hels said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hels said...

AB

I remember 1970 very well... my last year of uni and then a couple of weeks later, I married my sweetheart who had just finished his last year as well. The hair dos, fashions, Vietnam War, dope, music, conservative governments etc were very much of their time, unknown to today's university students.

AB said...

Yes indeed. it was a heady time in more ways than one. another planet compared to now. esp 'Uni students' and hairdos: how weird that we can recall how longish hair could be so UPSETTING for The General Public. abuse was hurled by strangers from passing cars.
so weird.

getting into uni required wealthy parents or a scholarship. my own sweetheart got into Melb Law on a Commonwealth scholarship in 66, joined The French Film Club, The Blues Appreciation Society, and failed first year. as you do. I used to wonder how the life went of the more diligent kid whose place he usurped (University has no cachet now. idiot tutors have no campus presence, go from carpark to classroom and the reverse, and have no idea beyond their tap-tap PowerPoint rote trick.) we went to Sydney in 69 because he auditioned for the Tribal-love rock-musical HAIR.

criminal arsehole Harry Miller had the cast supplied with dope, we were suddenly in Kings Cross surrounded by rich Sydney cafe-society, GAY people, and american 'negroes' and our lives changed enormously.

Arthur Rylah graciously allowed the onstage use of the f-word that we now hear children use in public too often, after silly swimmer Holt said "all the way with LBJ", the NSW Premier told his driver to 'run over the bastards" when students protested the war. for God's sake.

Timing is everything: we were Mods, Hippies, punks, bought Fire&Rain, went to Daddy Cool's first gig, and we were the Internet Generation (in 1965 my boss said to me "learn computers, it's The Future" - he went to night classes after work, and I finally did in 1987.

I'm obsessed with history. This week Corbyn mentioned The Tolpuddle Martyrs. a mystery to many, but not us. They did their time in Tasmania and went straight back afterward.
Now to the news to see if Trump has exploded yet ...

Hels said...

AB

for me opposing the Vietnam War was important, but women's contraception and abortion rights were my biggest commitment. And protection for women and children from their man's abuse. Remember Justice Menhennitt ruling in the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1969? Followed by the Justice Levine ruling in NSW in 1971. And remember the first women's refuge which was opened in Sydney in the early 1970s? Those were great achievements :)