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Book Review: Whiteley on Trial by Gabriella Coslovich

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Whiteley on Trial

Gabriella Coslovich

Reviewer: Gideon Haigh

Brett Whiteley was not, strictly speaking, on trial, when in 2016 the authenticity of two paintings ascribed to him were challenged in Victoria’s Supreme Court, and the art dealer Peter Gant and conservator Aman Siddique convicted of confecting them as part of a $4.5 million sting. Yet the trial was all about his fascination of his reputation, which transfixed the buyers, empowered the intermediaries, divided experts, energised protectors and, not least of all, excited the media, including Gabriella Coslovich, a specialist in reporting the arts at The Age.

Coslovich’s Whiteley on Trial covers the case in depth, with all its attendant dramas and debates, interspersed with the candid reflections of an intelligent lay-person on the legal process; it also introduces many of the story’s larger-than-life personalities, such as gregarious Gant, inscrutable Siddique, Whiteley’s merry widow Wendy, barrister extraordinaire Robert Richter, and a colourful array of art world spivs and chancers; Coslovich even attracts an anonymous informant with an email handle of a notorious forger. Well-chosen illustrations support a fluent text.

By wedding herself so tightly to the trial, however, Coslovich foregoes the opportunity to take real literary and intellectual flight.  With everything occurring in legal hindsight, we miss the real time unfolding of the drama, the contribution of the market cycle, the cynicism of the participants, the cult of trophy paintings and painters.  By one estimate, one in ten paintings changing hands in Australia is fake.  What sort of community condones such abuses?  Gant, cocky and preening, presents unappetisingly through Whiteley on Trial: Coslovich nicely describes their first meeting as ‘like an awkward first date.’ But his critique of the system does not seem so astray. The only question would then be whether this is unusual and/or peculiar to a parochial and provincial scene, or inseparable from art under late capitalism.  Coslovich frets on art’s behalf as the philistine law holds up a mirror to it, and the reflection does seem to have been a distorted one.  But the law also seems to have posed some questions for which an inward-looking claque struggled to find worthwhile answers. The quashing of the guilty verdict, depriving everyone of needed scapegoat: the paintings live on as Ern Malley-esque relics, having gnawed at the reputations of everyone they touched, even that of the deceased painter.

Mr Gideon Haig, Journalist and Author

Gideon Haigh has been a journalist since 1984, contributed to more than 100 newspapers and magazines, written thirty-four books and edited seven others.  His most recent book is An Eye on Cricket (2017)  His next book, A Scandal in Bohemia: The Life and Death of Mollie Dean will be published in April 2018.

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