After the failure of a court-ordered mediation, the gloves are off in the battle between the National Gallery of Victoria and its suspended senior curator Geoffrey Smith.

And as the opposing sides prepare for what’s set to be a bruising courtroom stoush, Smith’s ex-partner, Melbourne art dealer Robert Gould, has come out defending his reputation and denying he benefited from Smith’s position at the NGV.

After one and a half days of private talks before a court-appointed media, the NGV released a statement last night announcing that the matter would now go to trial.

“We are disappointed that the mediation has been unsuccessful,” said NGV director Gerard Vaughan. “The NGV has worked hard to secure a positive outcome. We are satisfied that we have at all times acted properly and look forward to presenting the National Gallery of Victoria’s case to the Court.” The matter will go before Justice Shane Marshall for a directions hearing next Monday before the judge presides over a trial, set down for three days at the end of the month.

Smith is seeking to be reinstated to his job and is alleging that he was denied natural justice by the NGV in the way it conducted its internal investigation into his involvement in Robert Gould’s gallery business.

Although not directly involved in Smith’s fight with the NGV, Robert Gould has copped a lot of collateral damage, with his name and business constantly appearing in media reports about the saga. Gould has been dragged into the saga because of a separate case in which he is being sued by Smith for a share of artwork and real estate acquired during their 14-year relationship. In a Supreme Court affidavit, Smith claims he worked “assiduously” to build the reputation of Gould Galleries. In his opposing affidavit, Gould denies that Smith played any significant role in the business.

Yesterday Crikey raised questions about Smith’s knowledge of Gould’s purchase of two major works from Arthur Boyd’s renowned Bride series, and whether Smith alerted the NGV of the paintings whereabouts before Gould bought them.

In a statement to Crikey, Gould insisted that Smith was not involved in any way with the purchase of the Boyd paintings. He also denied profiting from his relationship with Smith. Instead, Gould claimed that having a state gallery curator as his partner actually disadvantaged his business.

Here’s the Gould statement:

I am writing to state that Geoffrey Smith was not present during any conversations I had with the owners of the Boyd Bride paintings, nor was he involved in any way shape or form with any part of the transactions.
To avoid any conflict of interest, neither Gould Galleries nor I ever offered paintings for sale to the Australian Department of the NGV during our 14 year relationship outside my normal exhibition program. (Smith is curator of Australian art.)

If anything, my relationship was disadvantageous to my business relationship with the NGV. However I donated cash towards the purchase of a number of works as well as numerous paintings to the NGV, assisted in many fundraising projects, provided free valuations, and represented the NGV in purchasing works, always free of any charges.

In a separate phone conversation with me this morning, Gould provided details of several transactions and negotiations with the NGV during his relationship with Smith, but they all related to artworks outside Smith’s direct area of responsibility.

In a statement released by his lawyer yesterday, Geoffrey Smith said Gould’s purchase of the Boyd Bride pictures “was well known to the senior management of the NGV”.

The statement didn’t say who told the NGV about the purchase, nor whether the gallery was informed before or after the transaction occurred. Crikey has sought clarification of the statement but we have received no response.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey