If The Australian hasn’t run a retraction yet, it ought to real soon. Last Friday, it made the startling claim that Melbourne art dealer “Robert Gould was often paid to buy artworks on behalf of the National Gallery of Victoria at the personal request of its director”.

The Oz based its story on a statement of claim filed in the Federal Court by Gould’s ex-partner, Geoffrey Smith, who is fighting to be reinstated to his job at the NGV after being suspended over conflict-of-interest allegations.

The big problem with the story is that nowhere in the 67-page document prepared by Smith’s lawyers is there any mention of Gould being paid to buy artworks on behalf for the NGV. Indeed, the document specifically states that no evidence of payments to Gould could be found.

Gould himself has admitted to Crikey (September 1, Item 19) that he “provided free valuations, and represented the NGV in purchasing works, always free of any charges”.

Bizarrely, The Oz story contradicts itself – asserting in the opening paragraph that Gould was paid by the NGV before pointing out that “the gallery searched its accounting records to see whether any payments for artworks or other payments had been made to Gould Galleries, but found nothing”. Mr. Gould would have reason to be more than a little annoyed.

According to Smith’s statement of claim, the NGV’s formal inquiry into his conduct was “fatally flawed” because it had failed to follow correct procedures and had denied him natural justice. The document reveals that the NGV based two of its formal allegations against Smith on reports in Crikey.

The NGV’s initial investigation into Smith found that he had a case to answer over 16 alleged breaches of the public service code in relation to conflict of interest. Fourteen of those breaches related to information contained in affidavits filed by Smith and Gould in a property dispute they’re waging in the Victorian Supreme Court. (Smith’s affidavit contained admissions about his involvement in Gould Galleries.)

According to the document filed in the Federal Court, the remaining two alleged breaches related to “articles entited ‘The NGV’s curator’s travels’ and ‘The NGV curator and the Temptation of St Anthony’ by Mr. Stephen Feneley on the website Crikey.com.au”.

The first story (Crikey July 21 Item 16) was about a New York art auction in 1999, where Gould, in Smith’s company, bought a painting of Ned Kelly by Sid Nolan. A source quoted said Smith should have informed the NGV that the picture was coming up for auction. The second story (Crikey July 25, Item 15) was about a drawn out legal case involving a dispute between Nolan’s stepdaughter, Jinx Nolan, and his widow, Lady (Mary) Nolan over ownership of three of the artist’s paintings. Jinx’s solicitor Gary Singer filed an affidavit detailing his client’s assets, including a painting by her stepfather, The Temptation of St Anthony”.

Singer said Geoffrey Smith had advised him that the picture was to be exhibited in a show he was curating at the NGV and was insured for $600,000. Although the specific allegations against Smith have not been made public, other documents filed in the Federal Court suggest that the NGV had a problem with Smith revealing to Singer information about the artwork’s insurance valuation.

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

JOIN NOW