The elderly American collectors who sold two museum-quality artworks to Melbourne art dealer Robert Gould, reputedly for much less than their market value, have told Crikey they were satisfied with the price Gould paid. In a letter to Crikey, the couple also confirmed they had no dealings with Gould’s ex-boyfriend Geoffrey Smith, the National Gallery of Victoria curator who has been suspended because of admissions he made about his involvement in Gould’s commercial gallery business.

The purchase by Gould of two major canvases by Arthur Boyd from the Philadephia-based collectors in 1995 has entered the realms of art-world folklore, with gossipers claiming Gould made a huge killing on the deal, picking up the paintings for a song and selling one of them a couple of months later for a whopping profit, said to be as much as 500%.

I was first told this tale six years ago and at the time treated it as just another bit of bitchy scuttlebutt, but the story took on a whole new significance in recent months after it came to light that Geoffrey Smith had claimed to be closely involved in Gould’s business during their 14-year relationship.

Smith’s claims — made in a Supreme Court affidavit as part of a palimony action he has launched against Gould — raised interesting questions about his ex-partner’s deal with the American collectors. Was Smith aware of Gould’s intention to buy the pictures and did he alert his superiors at the NGV?

The paintings, from Boyd’s first Bride series, arguably his most important body of work, are the kinds of things a public gallery would give serious thought to buying, if it knew they were available.

In response to written questions I put to the couple in Philadelphia, I have received this response, which I have edited in keeping with an undertaking not to reveal their identity:

My wife and I did sell a painting or paintings to Mr Robert Gould. We had no contact with Mr Smith or any other person in this regard. Mr Gould made an offer which we found satisfactory and accepted, and he arranged for the receipt and shipping of the painting(s).

Curiously, the collectors, now both aged in their 80s, are unclear as to whether they sold one or more paintings to Gould.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt there were at least two — Dreaming Bridegroom and Wedding Group. Only months after he bought it, Gould sold Dreaming Bridegroom to the ANZ Bank for around $340,000. Wedding Group is one of 23 pictures over which Smith and Gould are fighting for ownership in their Supreme Court property dispute.

Gould has told Crikey that Smith was not involved in any way in buying the two Boyds. Smith has not denied having prior knowledge of the deal but, through his lawyers, he told Crikey on August 31 that Gould’s purchase of the paintings “was well known to the senior management of the NGV”.

The key question, to which I have received no response, is whether Smith alerted the NGV before the deal was done.

Peter Fray

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