MILLIONS of dollars’ worth of art and artefacts have been traded through a controversial “pop up” and online auction house that sold paintings attributed to big-name Aboriginal artists even after being warned they were probably fakes.
Over the weekend the company, Arthouse Auctions, withdrew a painting expected to be sold today against the name of one of Australia’s highest profile Aboriginal artists, Tommy Watson, after being told by The Australian that the work was an alleged forgery.
Arthouse Auctions managing director and national head of art, Giovanna Fragomeli, had previously declared herself “absolutely” confident that the painting was authentic.
Arthouse has held at least 79 sales across five states and the ACT since 2011, appearing to target small-time collectors and mum-and-dad investors. Last year alone it reaped more than $2.3 million from 28 sales, according to “verified” online records.
Earlier this month, The Australian revealed that at least 15 canvases purportedly by 2012 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art Award winner Barbara Moore had been faked, two of which turned up at an Arthouse sale in Brisbane in November.
The Australian can now reveal that at least nine allegedly fake works attributed to Watson appeared in Arthouse sales last year. Six of those nine paintings sold for a total of $69,250, according to records held by auction website Invaluable.com. Individual Watson works have changed hands for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the private market.
On October 24, head of Yanda Aboriginal Art and Watson’s “worldwide agent” Chris Simon wrote to Arthouse warning that two paintings scheduled for sale on October 26 “to my (Simon’s) experienced eye are not by Tommy.”
“I asked Tommy if he was responsible for the works and he has denied painting them,” the letter said. “His family representatives also denied that Tommy had painted the advertised paintings.”
The letter demanded immediate removal of the works, which were instead sold for a combined total of $22,000, with no warnings about contested authorship, according to Invaluable.com’s records.
A copy of Simon’s letter has been obtained by The Australian.
The Australian sent a list of 13 works offered for sale by Arthouse as attributed to Watson to author and art consultant Ken McGregor, considered an authority on the Aboriginal painter’s art. McGregor identified nine paintings he said were definitely “not right” and one more he had doubts about.
“(Arthouse has) been actively selling paintings attributed to Tommy Watson that aren’t his,” Mr McGregor said.
He also claimed to have obtained independent confirmation that the works were inauthentic from Watson and his family. Arthouse last week published a catalogue for its latest Aboriginal Art & Artefacts Auction — scheduled to take place in Sydney today — containing one of the allegedly fake Watson works, offered for sale with a Certificate of Authenticity and “photos of the artist with the painting”. Arthouse offers a “100 per cent guarantee of authenticity based on the catalogue descriptions”, according to its website.
When telephoned by The Australian last week, Ms Fragomeli said she stood by her company’s guarantee and was confident the advertised work was painted by Watson. She promised to send supporting documentation, including photographic evidence of authorship, that did not arrive. The Australian sent her detailed questions last Thursday.
No response had been received at the time of publication.
The suspect work had disappeared from the catalogue yesterday morning. It is not the first time Arthouse has been accused of trading dodgy art. In 2013, the company sold “original lithographs” attributed to Margaret Preston that turned out to be pages ripped from a magazine, according to a report by the ABC.
In November, Tjala Arts, based in SA’s APY Lands, circulated a flyer warning “Buyer Beware!”, after a painting purporting to be Amata Community Collaborative work from the APY Lands appeared in one of Arthouse’s catalogues.