If the National Gallery of Victoria is ever allowed to resume its investigation into the conduct of its suspended curator Geoffrey Smith, it should take a close look at the purchase by his ex-partner Robert Gould of two significant works by the late Arthur Boyd.

The pictures are both considered to be of museum quality, the sort of things an institution like the NGV would more than likely give serious thought to buying, if – and this is a very big if – the gallery knew they were available.

So it’s a matter of public interest whether Geoffrey Smith had any knowledge of Gould’s intention and efforts to buy the two paintings and whether he shared that knowledge with his employer.

The NGV is currently barred from pursuing its inquiry into Smith’s extra-curricular activities because of action the curator has taken against the gallery in the Federal Court in an effort to get his job back.

The gallery’s internal investigation was prompted by admissions Smith made about his involvement in the running of Gould Galleries during his 14-year relationship with Robert Gould.

In an affidavit, filed in the Victorian Supreme Court, Smith claimed he “worked assiduously” to build the reputation of Gould’s business. Smith filed the affidavit as part of his legal fight against Gould for control of artworks and real estate acquired during their years together.

Among the 23 artworks at the centre of the dispute is a major oil painting, Wedding Group 1957-58, by Arthur Boyd from his highly acclaimed Bride series. It was one of two Bride series pictures that Gould bought from an elderly collector in America eleven years ago. The Philadelphia-based collector had bought Wedding Group and a companion picture, Dreaming Bridegroom 1, from the first exhibition of the Bride series at Australian Galleries, in Collingwood, in 1958.

Crikey understands that in either late 1994 or early 1995, while Gould and Smith were visiting London, Gould received a tip-off about the whereabouts of the two paintings. It’s understood he rang the collector from London and then flew to the U.S. to negotiate the purchase. In September 1995, Dreaming Bridegroom featured in a group exhibition at Gould Galleries, listed in the catalogue with a price of $350,000, widely rumoured to be several times more than what Gould paid for it. The ANZ Bank bought it, reportedly paying $340,00, and hung on to it until May 2000 when it was sold in a Sotheby’s auction for a spectacular $954,000, which was then a record price for a Boyd.

Yesterday Crikey sent a list of questions to Smith’s lawyer, David Shaw at Holding Redlich. Shaw responded late this morning with a statement in which he said Smith “denies any wrongdoing in relation to his employment at the NGV”. Shaw said that Smith was not present in Philadelphia when Gould purchased the Boyd pictures. He also claimed that the deal was “well known to the senior management of the NGV”.

What is not clear from the solicitor’s statement is whether the NGV’s management was alerted to the whereabouts of the pictures before Gould bought them.

Nevertheless, Shaw makes the point that the identity of the American owners of the paintings was a matter of public record, having been published in a 1967 monograph on Arthur Boyd.

Crikey also sought comment from Robert Gould but we have not heard back from him. We rang Philadelphia but the collector declined to talk to us. If anyone in the Crikey army can help cast more light on this matter, I’d be happy to hear from you: [email protected]

Peter Fray

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