Late last week, a little less than a year after a Victorian Supreme Court jury found art dealer, Peter Gant and art conservator, Aman Siddique guilty for conspiring to obtain financial advantage by deception by forging and selling three Brett Whiteley paintings, the conviction was quashed. The government’s own prosecutor, Daniel Gurvich QC, had been asking for the conviction to be set aside. Nobody disagreed, and the Victorian Court of Appeal quashed the conviction on April 27 saying the jury had got it wrong.
It is no surprise that the verdict was quashed. Problems for the prosecution case were mounting even before the prosecution had finished making it. Art forgery cases are difficult to prosecute. There has only been one successful prosecution in Victoria, that of Ivan and Pamela Liberto who were convicted of for forging Rover Thomas paintings in 2007.
The Whiteley case goes back to 2007 when Detective Sergeant James MacDonald was looking at what appeared to be large scale art fraud. Aman Siddique’s colleague Guy Morel had secretly taken a series of photographs of paintings allegedly being created in the style of Brett Whiteley at Siddique’s business, Victorian Art Conservation.
It was a shame, as Siddique’s defence barrister Mr John Ribbands QC pointed out, that with the benefit of hindsight, Detective MacDonald didn’t surreptitiously write his initials, “JM” or put his thumb print in paint on the back of the large blue painting in progress in the locked studio. If he had, then a chain of evidence between that painting and a similar large blue painting later sold to Andrew Pridham, merchant banker and the chairman of the Sydney Swans, would have been intact.
There was evidence that Peter Gant had owned Whiteley paintings earlier which matched the description of the paintings in question. There was a catalogue for an exhibition at Gant’s gallery that featured the paintings. The catalogue was printed in high resolution off-set lithography. The copy shown to the court was remarkable because it was a test run, what printers call a ‘running proof’ and contained hand-written notes by the printer. The catalogue had never been finally printed and distributed because the exhibition had been cancelled due to the death of Gant’s business partner and the gallery’s co-director, who was only 32 years old. This was supported by the evidence of Jeremy James, the photographer for the catalogue who swore that he had photographed the paintings.
There was the also evidence from Gant’s former gallery assistant, now yoga instructor, Rosemary Milburn. It was decades ago, but Monday the June 28, 1988 must have been a busy day at Peter Gant’s Coventry Street Gallery in Melbourne because there had been a big delivery of art.
Milburn made several entries in the consignment book. One of the entries was about the delivery of three paintings: “#23 Chris Quintas, 3 Whiteleys” along with her signature. She said she did not remember the paintings in much detail but they matched the description of the paintings that the prosecution alleged were forged Brett Whiteleys.
There was also evidence for the existence of paintings fitting the description in 2006. Invoice #0175 in Siddique’s books read: “14/07/06 Brett Whiteley, Lavender Bay Blue, surface cleaning and varnishing approximate size 1600 x 2500 possible framing 4000/5000 plus GST”. So it was possible that the paintings Detective MacDonald saw in Siddique’s studio were not the same ones sold by Gant.
Against this evidence Brett’s widow, Wendy Whiteley’s opinion that paintings in question were fakes was just an opinion. She couldn’t know because she wasn’t living with Brett at the time that the two paintings were said to have been made by him.
These were certainly some reasonable doubts. Because of the strength of these doubts Justice Croucher took the highly unusual step of offering the jury a ‘Prasad invitation’ at the end of the prosecution case. A Prasad invitation is when the judge asks the jury if they have heard enough and want to return a verdict of not guilty or if they want to hear more. It is sometimes used in sexual assault cases where the identification of the accused is seriously in error.
Juries generally don’t want to be in court longer than they have to but remarkably, after sitting for 18 days on this case, the jury came back after lunch to tell a stunned court that they wanted to hear more. There wasn’t much more for the jury to hear. Mr Wraight QC defending Peter Gant, called no witnesses and Mr Van De Weil QC only called two witnesses to testify to Aman Siddique’s good character.
The need to find both Siddique and Gant guilty was an added difficulty for the prosecution. There was no evidence that Gant and Siddique had conspired to forge paintings. There was no evidence that Siddique had ever received any money for his part. But even after the Prassad invitation. the jury of six women and six men found both Gant and Siddique guilty of conspiring to obtain financial advantage by deception on Thursday May 11.
Last Thursday both men and the two paintings in question (the other work alleged to have been forged has not been located) were released by the court. That they are suddenly not guilty does not necessarily mean either men will work in the art world again. And it’s doubtful that anybody would pay millions for either of the two paintings after witnesses, including Whiteley’s widow and two University of Melbourne experts, gave their opinion that the paintings were not by the hand of Whiteley.
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