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Gabriella Coslovich on writing the Brett Whiteley forgery trial

Gabriella Coslovich, a former Age arts journalist, tells Daily Review about writing Whiteley on Trial, her new book that follows the twists and turns of Australia’s biggest case of alleged art fraud. A jury had found two men guilty of faking major works by the late Brett Whiteley, but this year an appeal bench sensationally acquitted the pair and the paintings were returned to their owners. Coslovich always believed the works were forgeries – as did Whiteley experts – and her covering of the trial and the many personalities involved reveals the disconnect between the art world and the legal system. Whiteley on Trial is published by MUP.

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You had been reporting on this case  long before the court proceedings began when you worked at The Age. From your experience, can the law and the more abstract world of the arts make bedfellows?

My observation of this particular case would suggest that the arts and the law make uneasy bedfellows. They seem incompatible; speak different languages and have different systems of knowledge.

We saw this play out in the criminal courts’ inability to decide on the authenticity of the two alleged forgeries at the centre of the case. The appeal bench said it was “ill-equipped” to decide, leaving the paintings in legal limbo. This was despite the conclusions of two expert witnesses – and Wendy Whiteley – who testified that the paintings presented to the courts were not by the hand of Brett Whiteley.

The courts (as opposed to the jury) had little regard for the connoisseurship of Wendy and these expert witnesses. Connoisseurship comes from years of experience looking at an artist’s work and recognising his or her particular style. It is a form of pattern recognition no different to the work of forensic scientists who give evidence about fingerprints, blood stains, bullet holes, fire debris and so on. Forensic scientists are just as capable of getting things wrong, but their interpretations are acceptable to the criminal courts.

Interestingly, Magistrate Suzanne Cameron, who presided over the committal hearing and sent the case to trial, identified the tension between the arts and the law and predicted the difficulties ahead.

In writing on the Whiteley case, you attended court every day. How did you sort through the detail, claims and counter claims when it came to writing the book?

Sheer doggedness and a background in journalism – which trains one to deal with information quickly and on deadline. I had piles and piles of documents, sorted into various categories, growing higher and higher around my desk. I like hard copy– I find it far easier to locate and absorb documents in physical form than on my lap top. I like the tangibility of it. Holding paper in my hand. It’s very old-fashioned!

During the five-week trial, every day after attending court I would go home and write down almost in a stream of consciousness the most striking or perplexing things that had happened that day. It was like keeping a journal – on the lap top. I type faster than I write (not so old-fashioned of me). I would also re-read the court transcripts and highlighted the most fascinating parts, bearing in mind that I needed to tell a complex story as interestingly as I could. I always had in mind a general reader – I didn’t want to be writing for either an arts or law specialist, but for anyone who might be interested in true crime.

There were days when I thought the task ahead impossible, but I ploughed on. Having a contract with a publisher and a tight deadline helped – I had to uphold my end of the bargain.

What was your approach in constructing the book?

I was working on the book while also working as a freelance journalist, however during the trial and for several months afterwards I focused solely on the book. I had to immerse myself in the story. With so much information to digest and understand and investigate, there was no room in my mind for other stories. During these months of immersion I worked solidly from morning to night, stopping only for lunch, dinner, and exercise. I worked through many weekends. You can imagine how much fun I was to live with!

Did you have narrative in mind when you took on the task of writing the book or did the narrative emerge from the court proceedings?

I plunged in with no true sense of how I would structure the narrative. The first section I wrote is the Sydney chapter of the book. Seven months before the trial, I travelled to Sydney on a fact-finding mission, to look carefully at Brett Whiteley’s work, visit the Lavender Bay home he shared with Wendy, and speak to other key players in this tale. I spent time with Whiteley expert Barry Pearce, with whom I visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Brett Whiteley Studio to study Whiteley’s master works, Big Orange (Sunset), 1974, and The Balcony 2, 1975, upon which the alleged forgeries are partly modelled.

Sydney is, of course, the home of the late artist and of the victims of the alleged fraud, and Melbourne the alleged place of production. The action is divided between these two rather different cities – and I liked the contrast in moods this provides.

At the start I simply wrote different scenes stemming from interviews I had conducted, and fragments from various early court hearings, which I then began to weave together and shuffle around, until a structure occurred to me.

I decided that I would tell the story as it unfolded and as I experienced it, chronologically. This served me well in the end on legal grounds, as the action and commentary always occurs in context. The trial created its own narrative, so this was a much easier section to shape. I simply told it as it happened.

I think it was while re-reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood that I decided that I wanted to start the book with the instance at which the artist Jud Wimhurst chances upon the alleged forgeries in Aman Siddique’s Collingwood workshop. However, I was not wholly satisfied with what I’d written and I rewrote the introduction after the trial and after the acquittal, so that the beginning now casts both backwards and forwards in time and states, right from the start, that the two accused are acquitted. The revised start also embeds the idea of “truth” and the role of the criminal justice system in pursuing the truth, or not.

Did you bounce the progress of the book off others?

Given the sensitivity of the material, I was advised by my editor Sally Heath not to circulate the manuscript widely while it was in progress. This was not a problem for me as I am generally reluctant to share work in progress. Sally was fundamental to the process. I sent her early chapters to ensure that my tone and choice of tense were working. We would constantly correspond – I would email Sally chapters and she would post them back with big chunks crossed out and suggestions for key sentences placed at crucial points. I love her feeling for nuance, subtlety and understatement. Once the first draft of the manuscript was complete, I began working closely with copy editor Meaghan Amor who was outstanding – she really understood the book and was a wonderful sounding board, particularly in helping to streamline the structure in the early sections. At “first pages” I shared the book with several trusted friends in the fields of arts, law and writing.

Did you have any pre-conceived ideas about the case?

I did and I am up front about this in the book. I considered the suspect paintings fraudulent from the beginning, and my view has not changed.

What did you learn about the law?

That there is as much art in the practice of law as there is in the practice of art. I saw the principles of our legal system in practice – the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof – principles that I was aware of but had taken for granted. It was fascinating to see the law at work. This was the first trial I had watched from beginning to end. I had never been a court reporter, so the world was entirely new to me, and therefore certain elements stood out sharply, as things do when one travels to unfamiliar places. For a writer, it’s a thrill to feel uncomfortable; your senses are heightened. I loved the theatre of the courts, the bench on high (like an altar to my ex-Catholic eyes), the pomp and circumstance, the wigs, the spin.

I became hooked on reading about other legal cases, precedents with relevance to this particular case, and even the Judicial College Manual. I marvelled at barristers’ and judges’ ability to view a situation from a myriad of angles, to turn it over and over, to analyse, debate and re-cast to an almost maddening degree.

What did you learn about the visual arts world?

I was more familiar with the visual arts world, so there was a lot less that surprised me or that I learnt. If anything, I probably learnt or was reminded of things I would rather not know.

Did you learn anything new about Brett Whiteley, or his work?

After being besotted by Whiteley’s work as a 20-something-year-old, I had come to dismiss it and dislike it. Writing this book brought me back to a more appreciative position. Whiteley’s body of work is astonishing – I mean, look at a painting such as The American Dream (1968-69). The work was critically canned but how can one overlook the sheer audacity of it, and the obsessive, crazed desire to capture in an 18-panel work a political and socially extreme moment in American history. (I wonder how Whiteley would encapsulate America today?) I marvelled at Whiteley’s commitment to art, his utter devotion to exploring ideas and technique, to becoming instinctive and fluid in the creation of a line. There is much to admire in his work, and I was reminded of this by returning to the many catalogues and books that have been written about him, and by viewing his work in the flesh at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Brett Whiteley Studio.

Did any of the parties mentioned in this book seek you out to put forth their views on the case?

No, not really. In the main, I sought people out and asked for their opinions, stories and insights on this case. Some people were reticent to speak or refused to speak at all. Others spoke only on condition of anonymity. I greatly appreciated the brave and the bold who spoke on the record.

Did you have to legal the book?

Absolutely! And every aspect! There was an acquittal to contend with. I was fortunate to have the extraordinary media and defamation lawyer Nic Pullen check the book line by line. Some anecdotes had to go and cuts had to be made, but in the end, these cuts were not as onerous as I had feared, nor did I have to restructure the book. I lost some of my favourite lines, but I did not lose the book.

Did Wendy Whiteley (the artist’s ex-wife) support the writing of the book?

She supported the writing in that she agreed to speak to me about the case and allowed me to interview her at her spectacular home in Lavender Bay, Sydney. She did not ask to look at any element of the book before it was published, nor did she ask to check the sections in which she appears. She also gave copyright for Big Orange (Sunset) and The Balcony 2 allowing us to represent these authentic Whiteley paintings in the book alongside the suspect paintings. I am very grateful to Wendy for all of this. I value her too as a character in the book – she adds much drama and vitality.

Has she read it? 

She has been sent a copy of the book. I’m not sure whether she has read it and I have no idea what she thinks of the book. So far she has yet to offer her judgement and I have not sought it.

Do you think she would be happy with the book?

I can’t be sure. I think she would be happy that this perplexing case has been documented and that the suspect paintings (which she and most of the art world believe to be fake) have been recorded in a book. But I did not write the book to make Wendy – or anyone else for that matter – ‘happy’. There will be people who are unhappy with the book and others who will be pleased. My motive was to try to understand, examine and question a fascinating case of alleged art fraud. And to write a gripping story filled with colourful and eccentric characters that I hope appeals to a broad readership.

Would you write a book based on a court case again?

I’m in no hurry to do so. Writing this book was intense – emotionally and intellectually. Had I known just how intense it would be, and how many twists and turns lay ahead, I’m not sure I would have taken it on. However, what I ended up with was a far better plot than I could ever have imagined.

Never say never, right? I like a challenge. I like to go where I’m not supposed to go. So who knows? A publisher might come to me with an idea that I can’t refuse.

4 responses to “Gabriella Coslovich on writing the Brett Whiteley forgery trial

  1. It’s not the quality of art which sells, but artist’s name. Whiteley continues to sell for $ millions because his reputation has all the “right” ingredients: talent, huge ego, drug addiction, died young. Also he is lucky to be Australian, no one outside of this country would pay millions for artist without international reputation.

  2. Congratulations to Gabriella Coslovich. She is a an elegant and nuanced writer and I look forward to reading her book!

  3. The ‘American Dream’ was truly audacious. It still looks like a year 12 HSC final work. Truly awful, on so many levels.

  4. Is it not logical to ask the following question; If the frauds sold for a lot of money, surely they had merit. Or, was it simply the belief that Whitely had painted them. So if a worthless painting becomes valuable because Whitely has his signature on it and it can be authenticated, surely that indicts the art world as being phony. But then I am an insensitive troglodyte indicted by my sense of logic.

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