CHRISTIES FRAUD UNMASKED!
Up to 30 per cent of the artworks offered in the Australian art market could be forgeries, the Supreme Court has been told in a case that threatens to lift the lid on dubious practices in the art world.
The plaintiff, Louise McBride, a Sydney barrister, is suing auction house Christies as well as classic car and art dealer Alex Holland and her own art consultant and former friend, Vivienne Sharpe, over the purchase in May 2000 of a painting entitled Faun and Parrot, said to be painted by late Australian artist Albert Tucker.
The case is unusual because most cases of art fraud settle before trial to avoid embarrassment and damage to the art dealers’ reputation.
Many never come anywhere near court – owners usually choose to quietly put the painting back into the market. In 2012, three fake Whiteleys surfaced and one buyer began legal proceedings but settled with the auction house before the trial.
But Ms McBride has decided to pursue her claim after Sotheby’s told her it was probably a fake when she tried to sell it.
Opening the case, Francis Douglas, QC, said his client had relied on the description in the Christies catalogue, and the advice of Ms Sharpe when she paid $86,000 for the work,
He said there was “no doubt that Christies had expressed an opinion” that the work was that of Albert Tucker and signed by him. No question mark was attached to the item – the usual convention used by Christies when there was some doubt, he said.
Mr Douglas also said works of dead artists were particularly susceptible to forgery and some people believed between 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the works on the secondary market were fake.
But Ms McBride has since discovered that Christies had two conflicting provenances for the painting, listing different galleries as its original source. The one referred to in the catalogue said it had been bought by a Mr Ivan O’Sullivan at the Tolarno Gallery in Melbourne in 1969 and inherited by his son, Barry.
Mr Douglas said Christies did nothing to check the provenance, and there were doubts about whether any of Christies’ experts even inspected the painting before the auction.
But soon after the sale, Christies received another version of events from Mr O’Sullivan: that it was purchased from Dominion Galleries in Sydney by his father.
Christies then consulted Melbourne University art experts after the May auction about Ms McBride’s painting and another painting after concerns were raised about whether there were several Tucker fakes on the market.
Despite advice from university experts that both works were suspect, Christies proceeded to auction the second suspect work in August that year. It has since repaid the $69,000 to Australia Club, the purchaser, the court heard.
The man actually consigning the painting to Christies, which was not disclosed to Ms McBride until much later, was car dealer and art collector Alex Holland. He, in turn, acquired it from the now bankrupt Peter Gant, a man who the the court was told had been named in a Four Corners report as associated with fakes in 1999.
“Mr Gant was identified as having sold a fake Drysdale for $250,000; as having supplied and sold fake Nolans; as having been the supplier of a batch of lalique glassware that had been irradiated to turn it purple and thus increase its value, and as being involved in a dispute with Charles Blackman about some paintings that Mr Blackman said to not be his work,” Mr Douglas said.
He said his client was indifferent to who would be held responsible: Christies, Mr Holland or Ms Sharpe.
Christies is expected to argue that Ms McBride is not the rightful plaintiff but rather it was owned by her superannuation company or her husband’s company, now in liquidation. It will also argue that the claim is outside the statute of limitations.
Ms McBride is also alleging that Ms Sharpe received secret commissions in relation to the sale of another artwork by Jeffery Smart. She says Ms Sharpe recommended she take an offer of a guaranteed price for the work, with the auction house and her sharing any upside in the ratio of 60 per cent to 40 per cent.
She was unaware, she says, that 30 per cent of the upside going to the auction house was in fact flowing to Ms Sharpe’s pocket.
The case continues.