Trevor Kennedy National Museum of Australia
Trevor Kennedy with some items from his collection (Image: National Museum of Australia)

There are millions of reasons why rich people donate items to cultural institutions.

They get a massive tax deduction which can be spread out over five years. The favourable publicity rubs off on any related pieces, which can be sold at a profit. Want to turn the proceeds of a business deal into social capital? Buy a piece of art, wait 10 years and then donate it to a public gallery.

Earlier this month the National Museum of Australia (NMA) announced it had spent $8 million on thousands of pieces of historical and decorative art “which explore Australia’s history, culture and identity” from businessman Trevor Kennedy.

Kennedy, the former boss of Kerry Packer’s media empire, also agreed to donate additional pieces (valued at $7 million), bringing the total number of objects to 5000.

In 2014, he tried to sell his entire collection to a Singaporean collector for $20 million, but was blocked by the federal government on cultural heritage grounds. Donations under the cultural gifts program are examined by two registered valuers, whose valuations are averaged. The NMA confirmed to Crikey last week that the cost of the valuations, which can run to many thousands of dollars, was covered by the museum.

Kennedy, 78, is not your stereotypical collector of Australiana. He last hit the headlines in the 1990s when he, the late stockbroker Rene Rivkin and Labor Party fixer Graham Richardson were investigated over a multimillion-dollar corporate scandal.

A company called Offset Alpine operated a printing press in western Sydney, worth about $3 million, which mysteriously burned to the ground on Christmas Eve 1993. Two months beforehand, the company had bought a new insurance policy which quickly paid out $53 million after the fire, dramatically pushing up the company’s share price.

Following an eight-year investigation by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) in 2002, Rivkin acknowledged that the three men were the beneficial owners of a substantial parcel of shares in the company. The proceeds from these shares, a total of $26.2 million, were deposited in a Swiss bank.

Both Kennedy and Richardson denied that they were involved. In 2010, five years after Rivkin died by suicide, ASIC closed the file.

When the news of his alleged involvement in Offset Alpine became public, former journalist Kennedy resigned from his position on seven public company boards and he has maintained a low profile ever since.

Earlier this month, he told The Sydney Morning Herald that the rest of his collection was up for sale.

“All of it is on the block,” he said. “The fact is I am now 78 summers … My family likes [the collection] but nobody has the passion for it. And to leave them with it would have been a burden, frankly.”

There’s no doubt that that Australian public — and in particular historians –will benefit from having access to many of these objects. Australiana Society president James Bertouch has said that the Kennedy collection represented the ”best privately held collection of items of Australian cultural and historical significance”.

But thanks to generous tax concessions and some very favourable publicity, Kennedy has done more than simply Marie Kondo’d his storage shed. He’s done the best deal of his life.