Whiteley painting bought for $1.5 million is bathed in doubt

May 13, 2019


The imminent publication of a definitive catalogue of celebrated artist Brett Whiteley’s work has cast doubts over the provenance of another of his paintings, in a fresh scandal that could wipe millions from the value of some art investments.

Titled Bather and Garden and supposedly created by Whiteley in 1978, the painting was last sold for $1.5 million in 2006.

Its exclusion from a soon-to-be-published definitive list of the artist’s work by Melbourne art historian Kathie Sutherland is likely to render it worthless and embroil the key players of a high-profile 2016 Supreme Court trial in another Whiteley controversy.

Whiteley’s former wife of 27 years, Wendy Whiteley, says the painting is not by her late husband.

“I agree with Kathie absolutely,” she said of the decision not to include the painting in the catalogue.

The art world is anxiously awaiting the November publication of Ms Sutherland’s 2400-page Brett Whiteley: Catalogue raisonné: 1955-1992.

Seven years in the making, the complete catalogue of Whiteley’s works has the potential to diminish the value of any works that are not included in its pages. What is and isn’t included may spark lawsuits.

Bather and Garden is the painting that triggered a bitter property dispute between two warring former partners, prominent Melbourne art dealer Robert Gould and former National Gallery of Victoria senior curator Geoffrey Smith, who is currently chairman of Sotheby’s Australia.

Three large Whiteley-style paintings that were the subject of the biggest art fraud trial in Australia’s history three years ago have also been excluded from the catalogue.

But with the approaching publication of Ms Sutherland’s catalogue raisonné (the official term for such lists), other artworks of questionable authenticity may be exposed.

Whiteley was a prodigiously talented and flamboyant figure who is best known for his voluptuous nudes and dreamy visions of Sydney Harbour. He died in 1992, aged 53, from a lethal mix of drugs and alcohol. His artworks are highly prized status symbols, or “trophy paintings” as they were labelled during the 2016 art fraud trial.

Whiteley’s talent has made him the target of would-be forgers looking to mimic his expressive brushstrokes, flowing lines and recurring motifs. His heroin addiction and separation in the late 1980s from Wendy Whiteley, his wife and muse, make his body of work vulnerable.

Forgers introduce fakes into the market under the cover that Whiteley traded art through the “back door” to make quick money for a hit, and that Wendy couldn’t possibly know everything he created. For this reason, Ms Sutherland’s catalogue, which itself costs a small fortune ($1500) and is being released by Melbourne publisher Morry Schwartz, will be a decisive checklist for buyers and dealers.

But the catalogue will not be without its own controversies as authenticating art is a fraught business.

“Brett was such a prolific artist that there is just no way that I will have captured everything,” Ms Sutherland says. “I will keep updating my records as new information comes to light. There will be things that pop up that I don’t know about today.”

An addendum will eventually be created and Sutherland envisages publishing it online.

“It’s an incredible reference,” Wendy Whiteley says of the upcoming publication. “In the future when I am not here and Kathie is not here, it will be very helpful. There is a huge industry in making fakes.”

Wendy was the star witness in 2016 in the Supreme Court of Victoria trial in which Melbourne art dealer Peter Gant and Melbourne art conservator Aman Siddique were accused of obtaining financial advantage by deception relating to involvement in the production of three suspect Whiteley-style paintings – Big Blue Lavender BayOrange Lavender Bay and Lavender Bay through the Window.

The experience left Wendy with little faith in the legal system’s ability to deal with alleged art fraud.

The two men were found guilty by a jury and later acquitted by an appeals bench. While the appeal judges made no findings on the authenticity of the paintings, saying they were ill equipped to do so, the art world wasn’t so reticent. The paintings were deemed “wrong” by Wendy Whiteley and other dealers and art experts, leaving their owners with retail hangovers.

Sydney Swans chairman Andrew Pridham paid $2.5 million for Big Blue Lavender Bay in 2007 and never got a cent back. Sydney luxury car dealer Steven Nasteski paid $1.1 million for Orange Lavender Bay in 2009 and recouped his money after threatening to go to police when doubts were raised about the painting’s authenticity. The orange painting was subsequently snapped up by Melbourne engineer Steven Drake, who bought it in 2013 for a “bargain” $122,000 in the hope it would one day be reclaimed as a real Whiteley.

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