The art market is a fickle and
complex thing. How is it, for instance, that the National Gallery of Victoria could spend
more than a year negotiating to buy a painting from a vendor with a pressing
need to sell, yet end up paying 30% more than the picture was worth when the
negotiations began?

That’s what happened with Sidney Nolan’s Temptation of St. Anthony,
acquired by the NGV in 2004 from the late artist’s stepdaughter, Jinx Nolan, for
$800,000 – $200,000 more than its officially declared value when negotiations
commenced. And in a masterstroke of media handling at the time, the word was put about
that the NGV got a bargain.

Jinx Nolan was keen to sell the painting because she was accumulating hefty
legal bills in a marathon court battle with her stepfather’s widow Lady (Mary)
Nolan. (The Nolan women were in dispute over three of the artist’s paintings
that Mary had sold at auction but which Jinx claimed belonged to her late mother
Cynthia.)

Jinx Nolan’s lawyer in the case was Gary Singer, the current Deputy Lord
Mayor of Melbourne. Singer was a long-time business associate of Melbourne art
dealer Robert Gould and is now romantically attached to Gould’s ex-partner
Geoffrey Smith, the NGV curator who is now the subject of a conflict-of-interest
investigation over his involvement in Gould Galleries.

Anyway, back in mid 2003 Jinx had lost the first two rounds of her legal
action and was seeking to go another round in the Victorian Court of Appeal.
The court wanted to know whether Jinx had the means to continue funding the
case, so Gary Singer filed an affidavit detailing his client’s assets in
Australia, including the St. Anthony picture.

“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 and was called as an expert witness to
give evidence in support of Jinx Nolan.)

Thirteen months later, after Jinx had lost in the Court of Appeal and was
considering an appeal to the High Court, Singer filed another affidavit
outlining his client’s financial situation. 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 media
reports at the time claimed the NGV 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.” The Herald Sun
ran a piece on a gala dinner of NGV benefactors, held specifically to raise
money for the purchase. The Hun reported: “Nolan’s adopted daughter Jinx, who lives in the United States, agreed to
sell the painting to the gallery well below its estimated $1 million-plus market
value.”

Vaughan told The AFR that negotiations over the purchase had been
going on for over a year. What does that say about the NGV’s negotiating
ability? The NGV is now making no comment while the investigation into Smith is
underway.

Meanwhile, The Sunday Ageran a report on the weekend on the conflict-of-interest investigation at the NGV. It made the following
claim: “And, now, fresh allegations of possible perjury have surfaced after
investigations by The Sunday Age.” Given that the story first appeared in Crikey on Thursday last week, it had
all the freshness of three-day-old bread. To claim it was the product of The Sunday Age‘s own investigation is
beyond overstatement.

Peter Fray

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