22 May 2016
by Martin McKenzie-Murray

Inside the Brett Whiteley Lavender Bay fakes trial

One of the paintings at the centre of the trial: Blue Lavender Bay.

An art dealer and conservator convicted of dealing in fake Brett Whiteleys now face a lengthy stint in jail. But the twists and turns in the five-week trial proved more colourful than the paintings themselves.

Guy Morel was suspicious. At the art conservatory in which he worked, he began hearing whispers of mysterious paintings being made in his boss’s storeroom. “I thought you knew,” a colleague told Morel in 2006. Morel did not, but he wanted to. Soon, his curiosity would become alarm.

Encouraged by his colleague, Morel waited for an opportune time to inspect the room. It was often locked, but the room’s separating wall did not reach the ceiling – it was a tall partition, leaving a gap at the top. While his boss was away, Morel placed a chair on a bench and, standing on the chair, with an extended arm blindly snapped photos of the room. Then he stepped down and inspected the digital images. He was shocked.

During our long conversation, Peter Gant’s claims of innocence sometimes existed as footnotes, so secondary did they seem.

The room contained works in progress that appeared to strongly emulate the style of the late artist Brett Whiteley. This wasn’t a subjective opinion – an original Whiteley sat nearby, seemingly as a template. As Morel stared at his photos, he knew something wasn’t right.

Morel’s boss was Mohamed Aman Siddique who, until his arrest in 2014, was one of the most respected art conservators in Australia. Siddique had previously advised a host of galleries, including the National Gallery of Victoria, and had restored countless works for wealthy collectors. If you owned a valuable painting that required restoration, I was told by more than one person familiar with his work, Siddique “is maybe the best person in the country for the job”.

A painter himself, with a style described to me as “meticulous but dull”, Siddique had studied at London’s Chelsea College of Arts before moving to Australia in 1983. “He has great skill and discipline,” an art figure, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me. “In fact, he’s a great recipe for a forger – someone who has both the art and the science.”

Siddique’s conservatory, in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, was a two-storey workshop stuffed with valuable pieces being retouched or reframed. The studio was filled with specialists. Guy Morel’s expertise was paper. Since the 1970s, he had studied bookbinding, chemistry and archiving, to better evaluate and preserve artworks and documents. Morel first met Siddique in the early 1980s, when they were both working at a conservation laboratory attached to a regional gallery. They lost contact until about 2001, when Morel was referred to clients who had approached Siddique for paper conservation. It had been a profitable and collegial partnership, but now Morel was sure his boss was a forger.

Chain reaction
In 2007, Detective Sergeant James MacDonald was working the fraud desk. On September 4, he received an anonymous phone call. The man on the other end hinted that he worked at a gallery, and that he had evidence of large-scale art fraud. It was Morel. He had agonised about going to police for months.

Morel was lucky to find MacDonald, an officer with an interest in art and forgery. As a rule, Victoria Police doesn’t have the time, interest or expertise to properly investigate art fraud, especially given the small chance of a conviction. But now the paper conservator would begin secretly co-operating with its investigation, leading, for a while, a risky and duplicitous life. MacDonald would visit the studio with Morel, posing as a client. Soon, another detective, Senior Constable Justin Stefanec, was visiting the premises.

The detectives knew, however, that at this stage no crime had been committed. It is not illegal to paint in the style of others, to copy works, nor to use another artist’s signature. For one, plenty of artists are inspired plagiarists. Artists constantly bend, borrow and refine their influences. The threshold for a crime was to knowingly sell counterfeited work.

But in December 2007, when Andrew Pridham, chairman of the Sydney Swans, purchased what he believed to be a large Brett Whiteley, titled Blue Lavender Bay, it started a chain of events that culminated in the Victorian Supreme Court this month. Pridham paid $2.5 million for the work, via the art consultant Anita Archer, who had secured the painting from art dealer Peter Gant.

Gant is notorious in Melbourne. The mention of his name to most Victorian curators or art dealers will elicit derision or a wry shake of the head. In 2010, a judge found Gant had sold three fake artworks, purportedly by Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson. “They were deliberately contrived to deceive unsuspecting members of the public,” the judge said, and ordered the works destroyed.

But in art forgery cases, mens rea is hard to prove. While the judge found the works to be counterfeit, he could not find that Gant knew them to be fakes. Despite this, Gant was found to have breached the Fair Trading Act.

In April 2008, Brett Whiteley’s widow, Wendy, visited Pridham’s home to inspect his new acquisition. She didn’t have good news – she thought it looked strange; didn’t feel right. Pridham kept the painting, but his suspicions grew. In 2010, he secured the services of Professor Robyn Sloggett, the director of Melbourne University’s centre for cultural materials conservation. Sloggett and her colleagues began examining the work.

Meanwhile, the previous year, Peter Gant sold another “Whiteley”, this time to Sydney car dealer Steve Nasteski. As with Pridham’s purchase, Orange Lavender Bay purported to belong to a late and beloved period of Whiteley. It sold for $1.1 million. Within a year, Nasteski had gone to police and Detectives MacDonald and Stefanec would become re-engaged. It would appear as if the crime brought to them by Morel, at that stage still embryonic, had hatched. In March 2014, Gant and Siddique were arrested.

Meeting Peter Gant
I first met Gant at a bar in September 2014. He had just been charged with multiple counts of fraud. Beside his glass of red wine was a copy of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, a hilarious spy farce. I wondered if the book was a hint. All around him there seemed to be hints. Sly references to crookedness. Before meeting Gant, everyone who knew him seemed to be winking at me, coyly declaring their knowledge lest they be thought naive. And here, placed before a man charged with ornate deception, was a novel about a man who embarrasses British spy agencies with ridiculous lies. I wondered.

Gant has always gambled. With money, the law, his health and freedom. He has spent large sums at the track, indignantly and serially offered his middle finger to authority, and engaged a war of attrition on his liver. Meeting me was another gamble. He had offered me an exclusive interview, apparently on the grounds that I was well read. He told me he wasn’t looking for any favours, and never dictated what I could ask.

Gant resembles an old trackside bookie – profane and proudly disreputable. His friends say he is a bright and charming raconteur. Many other people – and the public gallery for Gant’s trial was filled with them – see him as an amoral conman who has been able to play the law for too long.

During our long conversation, Gant’s claims of innocence sometimes existed as footnotes, so secondary did they seem. It was denunciations of his critics and alleged victims that truly enlivened him. These were wicked and venomous, and he emphasised his insults by slamming his hand on the table. On experts: “Robyn Sloggett is a stupid bitch.” On his clients: “Andrew Pridham is a fucking moron. Don’t tell me it’s worth paying $2.5 million and then it’s suddenly worth nothing. How dare he buy it and deprive others of buying it? Fucking moron.”

This seemed incongruous to me. If he had been charged with a crime he didn’t commit, one might expect his most passionate monologues to concern his innocence. They didn’t. What reliably excited him was the philistinism of art collectors, the sickly triumph of art as status. I made a note wondering if Gant was mentally constipated – desperate to share his anarchic manifesto but compelled to avoid prison. “Why do people buy art?” he asked me. “It used to be because you loved it. No more.” Then he would speak at length of the “genius” of Rothko. “I love his mind, I could spend half a lifetime looking at Rothko. There’s no bullshit. It’s sincere. He was a poet and a scholar.”

A month before Gant and Siddique’s trial started, I began reading the unfinished memoir of the late critic Robert Hughes. Early on, he writes: “Art prices are largely about voyeurism and toxic snobbery. They are what you see when you peer up the anus of ‘culture’.” I thought immediately of Gant.

Of course, this is a subjective appraisal, and faintly romantic in that it excludes greed from Gant’s motivations. Watching the trial, I wondered if my appraisal was the product of another con. If I was another mark. For a man seemingly contemptuous of wealth, Gant had befriended and depended upon businessmen for decades. The trial also revealed he had let many of them down. Gant was either on the make or engaged in a long and bizarre game of subversion. It’s possible that both are true.

The next time I spoke with Gant was in the courtroom’s lobby, about two weeks into the trial. Eighteen months had passed since our interview. “I’ve been meaning to contact you,” he said. “I hear you’ve put a book out.” Gant was flattering as ever. He told me he didn’t have my number anymore, but I assured him that I had his and that I would call after the trial. “I’ve changed that number a few times since then,” he told me, and smiled. “It’s what happens when they bug you.” He suggested a person I could get his current mobile number from, before walking into court with his lawyers.

Existing in limbo
During the trial, the paintings rested close behind me on a wooden bench. Before the verdict, Blue Lavender Bay’s worth was either $2.5 million or a few bucks. It existed in a sort of limbo of value, a limbo recognised by Gant’s barrister when he complained to the judge that the prosecution had not treated the paintings respectfully. “I don’t know whether any directions should be given,” Trevor Wraight, QC, said to the judge, “but [the jury] touching them with fingers and handling them, just because the Crown has a view about them – I know the way they’ve been storing them, they’ve assumed the guilt already.”

To which Justice Michael Croucher replied: “The presumption of innocence in a sense applies to these objects in the same way [as the accused].”

Created upon conjoined doors, both paintings are more than two metres wide and more than a metre high. Their size and weight posed a logistical difficulty to the court. They could not fit through the jury room’s door, where exhibits are examined, and the cramped nature of the court left few options for their hanging. So, for more than four weeks, they occupied a press bench before the gaze of the jury.

Ignorant of art, I twisted my body around to inspect Blue, idly hoping to spot some sign of authenticity or chicanery. All I found was astonishment that someone might pay $2.5 million for it. To me, it was crude and lifeless. I turned to the court illustrator to my left. “I’m a philistine,” I said, “but these look fucking terrible.”

He smiled. “You’re only half a philistine now.”

But whether the paintings were “good” or “bad” was not the matter being decided by the court; all that mattered was whether they had been confected and fraudulently sold as Whiteleys. “Art forgery is among the least despised of crimes – except by its victims,” the art critic Peter Schjeldahl has written. “The forger gratifies class resentment … Unlike the subversive gestures of a Marcel Duchamp, say, his outrages will not become educational boilerplate in museums and universities. They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general.” Would the jury think similarly? And if so, could they wrest diligence from their apathy?

The Crown had amassed considerable circumstantial evidence. Gant had purchased a genuine Whiteley, for $1.6 million, which two witnesses testified to being a template for the Whiteley-esque paintings in Siddique’s storeroom. Siddique had purchased 10 doors with clean-faces and odd sizes, prior to Morel photographing those progressive works. And, perhaps most suggestive of all, Gant admitted he had forged the signature of Robert Le Tet on a letter testifying to Le Tet’s purchasing Blue Lavender Bay directly from Whiteley in the late 1980s. To this, the Crown could add the assertions of Robyn Sloggett and Whiteley’s widow, Wendy, who both believed the works to be fake.

But in time, each argument would dramatically collapse.

Bogus works common
It is largely accepted by curators, dealers and auctioneers, if only privately, that forgeries riddle the art market and our galleries. And they always have, for as long as humans have made art. “There are so many phonies and doctored pieces around these days,” the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, wrote in his 1997 book False Impressions, “that at times, I almost believe that there are as many bogus works as genuine ones.”

To seriously forge a painting is to also forge its provenance – its history of ownership. This might be suggested by invoices and exhibition catalogues. An ideal provenance would be a verifiable trail of ownership from the artist’s studio right through to its most recent handler, whereas a hazy provenance will devalue a piece and invite suspicion. The necessity of provenance opens another door of risk to the forger, another web of fiction that must be weaved to suggest the forgery’s authenticity.

There are certain ways to determine a forgery. Time will splinter varnish, oxidise frames and stain canvases in signature fashions. Dud works can betray themselves by containing paint developed decades after their ostensible creation. Various scanning techniques can reveal other anachronisms. But the science is imperfect and harder to deploy when the work in question is not that old.

The Whiteleys in question were allegedly from 1988, and none of the forensic analysis could determine that they weren’t. Sloggett’s team had also subjected the works to infra-red scanning, to reveal the dark underdrawings which would hopefully match Morel’s photos of the works in progress.

In this way the skeletal sketching beneath the paint was revealed, but it was impossible to align it with the shaky photographs Morel had taken over the partition. Ideally, the Crown would have had images of Siddique’s works-in-progress that were of a quality and perspective that they could be neatly laid over images of the paintings in court in order to prove they were the same works. But the Crown didn’t. Subsequently, the judge thought it would be a dubious exercise for the jury to attempt such a comparison. “It would be probably asking them to experiment, and, if not, it would be asking them to speculate.”

Science hadn’t returned anything useful for the Crown. And even if tests had determined, definitively, that these paintings could not have been made in 1988 – and they couldn’t – it would be yet another thing to prove they had come from Siddique’s workshop. Scientific examination had also yielded the trial’s greatest irony. Guy Morel, the man who had blown the whistle, was asked by Siddique to independently examine a catalogue for an exhibition called A Private Affair. The exhibition was to be held in 1989, argued Gant, and would have displayed the Whiteleys in question. The exhibition was cancelled, Gant said, when his business partner died suddenly and he “had a breakdown”. Morel was now awkwardly working for police and his boss on determining the authenticity of these paintings. More awkwardly, Morel found the catalogue was indeed from the late 1980s. “This throws a spanner in the works,” MacDonald told Professor Sloggett when they learnt of Morel’s report.

And so it was that the Crown relied heavily upon the subjective testimony of Sloggett and Wendy Whiteley, intelligent witnesses whose certitude about the falseness of the paintings seemed to struggle to meet the court’s high mark for evidence. For a long time Sloggett discussed the recurring motifs of Whiteley paintings, and how distinct and fluid his hand was in rendering them. Then, aided by a laser pointer, Sloggett isolated for the court the paintings’ various breaches of those virtues. “Whiteley is known for his extraordinary ability to paint birds,” she said. “If you look at this close up, it signifies a bird but it’s actually painted as if it was, I don’t know, a wet rag being thrown out of a window or something. It just has none of the velocity or fineness or the sense of being a bird and it’s this idea of sensibility [that’s] important in terms of Brett Whiteley’s work…” She would later say of the painting: “It’s dead. It has a dead hand.”

The Crown had offered a witness who could say it was a poor and contrary painting but could not say it had been created by the accused. This was the burden of proof upon the Crown. Sloggett’s cross-examination by the defence appeared to irritate her, so jarring or unfamiliar was the questioning of her expertise. But her expertise itself was never in question, only its relevance in this courtroom. The verisimilitude of Whiteley’s birds may be appreciated by scholars, but it is of scant relevance in a criminal trial. Average painting might cause an expert to question authenticity, but it does not prove a work to be fake. In the absence of the jury, the judge put it another way: “That’s perfectly okay in discussion in cafes in Fitzroy. It’s all very interesting and I’m sure very enlightening and it may well be accurate, but this is a criminal trial.”

The defence sought to expose this subjectivity, and proposed that creative expression was, by nature, inconsistent. Great artists can paint poorly; styles fluctuate and decay; drugs can both enliven or cripple talent. The fact of Whiteley’s heroin addiction – he fatally overdosed in 1992 – was introduced to suggest the unreliability of his work and, by extension, of Sloggett’s certainties. Gant’s barrister read to Sloggett an excerpt of an interview Wendy Whiteley had given to a scholar of her husband’s work a few years after his death. “Don’t you really want to ask me if I think heroin had a detrimental effect on his work?” she asked her interlocutor. “Yes, I think it did… I felt that some of the paintings were dead, sitting solidly on the canvas, heavy, overworked.”

The defence drew attention to the fact Wendy had described some of her husband’s work in the same way Sloggett had described the paintings in the courtroom – that they were painted with a dead hand. How might the jury sit with this discrepancy and be satisfied of a guilt beyond reasonable doubt?

When Wendy took her oath in the courtroom, she registered a physical revulsion at the paintings sitting nearby. This seems common. When first seeing fakes of his own work, the ones sold by Gant in the early 2000s, Robert Dickerson said he felt disgusted and a “little bit sick”. Thomas Hoving describes how an art historian of the early 20th century, Bernard Berenson, once testified in court about the inauthenticity of a work. “Berenson was able to say only that his stomach felt wrong. He had a curious ringing in his ears. He was struck by a momentary depression.”

Wendy was both muse and model for Brett, and today speaks eloquently about his legacy. She is intimate with his work and said emphatically that Brett “didn’t underdraw, he worked with the paint that he was using” – a technique deployed in the suspect paintings before her. Unfortunately for the Crown, video evidence of Brett Whiteley using just that technique was shown to the court.

Wendy later told me her comments on underdrawing referred specifically to Brett’s Lavender Bay series. “That’s why they look so spontaneous and alive, unlike the paintings in court,” she said.

But things were unravelling. A former business partner of Gant’s, Jeremy James, had taken the stand, pointed to the paintings and said with assurance that he had photographed them in 1989 for the A Private Affair catalogue. The Crown had no response to this. As evidence, it could not be extinguished. The defence lawyers were buoyed; the prosecutor forlorn. On Friday, April 29, Justice Croucher said he would spend the weekend deliberating on whether to dismiss the entire case. It was a difficult decision, he said on Monday. He said he didn’t understand how it was possible for the jury to return a guilty verdict, especially given Jeremy James’ evidence about the catalogue. Croucher said the Crown’s case was so weak that to continue might lead to an “unsafe verdict”. But, by the “barest margins”, he decided to leave it before the 12 men and women. His apprehensions about the evidence were eclipsed by his reluctance to usurp the authority of a jury.

However, Croucher effectively signalled his beliefs to the jury by offering them a Prasad direction. It’s a mechanism rarely deployed, and used only when the Crown’s evidence is especially weak. It is an invitation to the jury to return an early “not guilty” verdict, before hearing the defence’s evidence or closing statements. Once it was explained to the jury, the court adjourned for lunch. I assumed a “not guilty” verdict was imminent. “What do you think?” Gant asked me, and I replied to him and his barrister that they must be very confident.

They weren’t, for the simple reason they knew not to assume a jury’s decision. Experience had taught them to respect a jury’s unpredictability. We re-entered court to receive the jury’s decision. The trial could be over. By chance, I was sitting between two of the accused’s children, who were tense with anticipation. They wanted this finished. But the jury’s foreman declined the direction, and announced a desire to hear the case out. Siddique sighed loudly; his son slumped in his seat. Another fortnight would pass before the jury would share its verdict.

Story not over The trial had lasted five weeks – six including the committal hearing. I had watched an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence whittled down to scarcely anything. So had the public gallery, the one so often filled with people hoping to see Gant’s day of reckoning. Late on Thursday, May 12, the jury returned to deliver its verdict. It had found both men guilty on all counts. I wondered if the verdict rattled the judge’s faith in juries. The maximum sentence is 10 years’ prison.

The conviction of Peter Gant and Mohamed Aman Siddique makes this Australia’s largest art fraud. For many, it was a long time coming. Wendy Whiteley tells me “so far, so good”, but she understands there will be an appeal. “Hopefully the paintings will be destroyed,” she says. It seems the story is not over, though. Given the past month, it would be a brave man who ruled out an erasure of the Gant-Siddique conviction.