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.
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.
Blue Lavender Bay, 1988
sold for $2.5 million.
Was it a fake?
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.
Self Portrait in the Studio, 1976
Art Gallery of NSW.
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.