3 paintings ruled as fakes by Aussie jury

Works passed off as those of late artist and sold for $3.6m by art dealer and conservator

In an unusual court case in Australia, jury members were asked to play the roles of art specialists and decide whether three paintings were created by one of the country's most famous artists, or if they were elaborate fakes.

The jury in the country's biggest alleged art fraud trial delivered its highly anticipated verdict on Thursday: The paintings, supposedly by the late internationally renowned artist Brett Whiteley, were forged.

Two men at the centre of the scam - prominent art dealer Peter Gant, 60, and respected conservator Mohamed Aman Siddique, 68 - were found guilty of producing the paintings and selling them for about A$3.6 million ($3.6 million).

In a case that has shaken up Australia's tight-knit art world, the pair claimed the paintings were completed by Whiteley in 1988 - four years before he died - and stored away for 20 years.

But prosecutors said Mr Siddique painted the works in his studio in Melbourne from 2007 and they were then sold by Mr Gant.

The jury agreed, and the pair could now face potential jail time when their sentences are handed down by the Victorian Supreme Court.

It was an unusual issue for a criminal jury to decide, although civil juries are often required to rule on works of art in intellectual property cases.

An American jury concluded last year that the song Blurred Lines by Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke was a copy of a 1977 song by Marvin Gaye. A separate jury may soon have to decide whether Led Zeppelin's classic 1971 song Stairway To Heaven lifted from a song by the band Spirit.

The Australian case included evidence from prominent members of the art community. Art expert Robyn Sloggett from the University of Melbourne said the paintings appeared to be forgeries and lacked some of Whiteley's signature features, such as his trademark swirls.

Professor Sloggett told the court that one of the fakes, Orange Lavender Bay, lacked the artist's drip lines and appeared to have been painted by a child. "It's almost paint by numbers," she said. "It's just not how he worked."

Whiteley, who lived in Sydney and spent time painting in Europe and New York, died of a drug overdose in 1992 at the age of 53. One of Australia's most celebrated painters, he is known for his paintings of Sydney's harbour and his confronting self-portraits.

Investment banker Andrew Pridham paid A$2.5 million for one of the fake paintings in 2007 and showed it to Whiteley's widow, Mrs Wendy Whiteley, who questioned its authenticity.

Concerned, Mr Pridham consulted Prof Sloggett, who along with an art conservator concluded the painting was a fake.

Appearing in court as the prosecutor's star witness, Mrs Whiteley said she was convinced the paintings were not by her husband.

When shown Orange Lavender Bay, she said: "It's a fake... the lack of spontaneity, the lack of wit, the lack of spirit... It was heavy and it looked like it had been knitted together and badly."

The defence argued that the couple had separated in 1987 and that Whiteley may have painted substandard works and sold them quickly to feed his drug habit.

Mrs Whiteley responded: "I didn't know everything Brett did but I certainly knew what he didn't do. An artist can't be a genius every day of his life, but he never painted average paintings."

Lawyers for Mr Gant and Mr Siddique said Mr Siddique has admitted to creating Whiteley copies but insisted the three disputed paintings were original. Mr Gant has maintained that he bought the paintings from the artist's agent in 1988.

After three days of deliberation earlier this week, the jury disagreed. The two men are out on bail and are expected to have a pre-sentencing hearing next month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline '3 paintings ruled as fakes by Aussie jury'. Print Edition | Subscribe