Before I launch into another
thrilling instalment of the Smith and Gould art saga, I have to make a
correction. On Friday, I referred to a New York art auction at which
Melbourne art dealer Robert Gould acquired a Sid Nolan painting. The auction
occurred in late 1999 but owing to a keystroke error, I reported it as 1990.

Accompanying Gould at the auction was his then partner, Geoffrey Smith, the
National Gallery of Victoria curator who is now at the centre of a
conflict-of-interest investigation. The Nolan bought at the New York auction, Portrait of
an outlaw, is one of 23 pictures over which the couple are fighting for control.

Part of Nolan’s second series of Ned Kelly paintings, the picture was
listed in the auction catalogue with a staggeringly low estimate of between
$US30,000 and $50,000. Although Gould ended up having to pay $277,500, it is
widely acknowledged that he got the work at a significant discount compared to
what he would have had to pay had the picture been auctioned in Australia.

It’s a bewildering thing trying to understand movements in art prices.
Take, for instance, another Sid Nolan painting, The Temptation of St.
Anthony
, which used to belong to the artist’s stepdaughter, Jinx Nolan, but
which she was forced to sell after losing a costly legal fight against her
stepmother.

Jinx was stuck with legal bills totalling hundreds of thousands of
dollars after a marathon court case in which she challenged Lady (Mary)
Nolan’s ownership of three Nolan paintings that the widow had put up
for auction. In 2003, after Jinx had lost two rounds of the battle and
was seeking to go another round in the Victorian Court of Appeal, her
lawyer had to show the court that she had enough assets to keep the
case going.

Her lawyer was Gary Singer, Melbourne’s Deputy Lord Mayor, a former
business associate of Robert Gould and the current romantic partner of Geoffrey
Smith.

In an affidavit filed in May 2003, Singer said: “I am informed by the curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of
Victoria, Mr. Geoffrey Smith, that in the forthcoming exhibition in that gallery
of Nolan’s Desert and Drought paintings, the Temptation of St. Anthony
will be exhibited in that exhibition and has been insured for its value at
$600,000.” (Smith curated the Nolan exhibition.)

What a shame the NGV didn’t buy St Anthony in 2003 instead of
waiting another year when it ended up paying an extra $200,000.

In a follow-up affidavit to the Court of Appeal in June 2004, Singer
reported that the NGV had bought St Anthony from Jinx for $800,000 and
that she would be able to use part of the proceeds of the sale to meet her legal
bills. Singer didn’t explain the hefty rise in the painting’s value, however
according to media reports at the time the NGV was boasting that it had paid
less than market value.

The AFR‘s Terry Ingram reported being told by NGV director Gerard
Vaughan that “the price had been arrived at independently and was just under
what the work was thought likely to fetch on the open market.” According to the Fin story, Vaughan also said negotiations over the
sale had been going on for over a year. Doesn’t sound like very smart
negotiating.

I’ve run all this past the NGV, but as is now standard, there is no comment
while the investigation into Smith is continuing.

Peter Fray

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