Former vice-chancellor Di Yerbury is having trouble wrenching what she says is her art collection away from Macquarie University. And one issue could make things a whole lot more tricky: superannuation rules.

As reported in today’s Financial Review, “Yerbury’s successor, Steven Schwartz, has established an internal audit to examine her claim upon a substantial slice of the university’s art holdings.”

The collection, accumulated over almost 20 years while Professor Yerbury was vice-chancellor, “is believed to include canvases by Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Percival, Ian Fairweather and Brett Whiteley, Aboriginal art and many sculptural and ceramic pieces”, writes Luke Slattery.

Yerbury says that “there’s no doubt about the paintings I own and the paintings the university owns,” but the AFR also notes that she claims to have “purchased more than 100 works — many of which are displayed in the university’s gallery and faculty buildings — investing her superannuation…”

Things get interesting at this point. A person can buy art as an investment with their superannuation money, but they generally can’t hang it on their walls, as noted by the ATO . Art is not art when it’s a super investment. (For the record, no, you can’t drink that “investment” wine either).

Yes, this is a somewhat “ludicrous situation”, says James Kirby, editor of The Eureka Report , but it’s part of a wider law that a person shouldn’t benefit until retirement from an investment purchased through DIY-super, be it property, shares or art.

That said, art lovers can overcome such conditions through a little financial manoeuvering, says Kirby. If they lease the art to others at commercial prices — this money then flows back into the super fund, to be accessed upon retirement — then they can bring it out of storage and into the light.

In Yerbury’s case, matters could get confusing if she ever looked at the paintings before retiring and, moreover, enjoyed it.

We put in a call to Macquarie University to see if a leasing arrangement exists with Yerbury but did not hear back before deadline.

Peter Fray

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