Now here’s a curious thing. The normally garrulous and media-friendly art
dealer Stuart Purves has suddenly gone all shy on me. I’ve been having great
difficulty trying to get Stuart to answer a simple question.

Did he or didn’t he authenticatea picture attributed to Sid Nolan
that caused a bit of a stir when it was offered for auction last week? (16 June, item 17) Kelly
with Rifle
, a small work on paper, was included in a Deutscher-Menzies
auction in Sydney last Wednesday, but after doubts were raised about its
authenticity, several prospective buyers pulled out of the bidding.

The auction house’s executive director Chris Deutscher claimed the
picture had been “screened” by Purves and an unnamed curator from a
state gallery. Purves owns Australian Galleries, the oldest commercial
gallery business in the country, operating from four locations in
Sydney and Melbourne. Purves’s parents once represented Nolan and he
still trades in his pictures from time to time, so he’s regarded as
something of a Nolan authority. And his failure to respond to repeated efforts to confirm whether he did, in fact,
authenticate Kelly with Rifle is
uncharacteristic and perplexing.

The doubts over the picture’s provenance have proved costly for
Deutscher-Menzies owner Rod Menzies, who ended up buying the picture with
$18,000 of his own money. He wanted to stay on side with the vendor from whom
he’s hoping to get more artworks for future auctions.

His public admission that
he bought the picture has raised eyebrows in the art world, with some people
questioning whether it’s proper for an auction house executive to buy work from
his own auction. Sotheby’s, for instance, doesn’t allow bids by staff unless
they’re submitted for approval 24 hours before the auction and can only be made
as absentee bids. Rod Menzies was present at the auction and only made his bid
after it was clear there were no other serious bids in the room.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey