An art conservator and an art dealer have been jailed for creating paintings they claimed were the work of renowned artist Brett Whiteley and selling them to unsuspecting buyers for millions.
However, a stay was put on the incarceration of Peter Stanley Gant, 61, and Mohamed Aman Siddique, 67, until their bail applications can be heard by the Court of Appeal, which will also hear a challenge to the convictions.
Victorian Supreme Court Justice Michael Croucher noted “there was cogent evidence that supported Mr Gant’s account” that he had purchased all three paintings that were the subject of the charges in 1988.
However, the jury did not avail itself of the “exceptional” step the judge took during the trial in offering them the opportunity to make a finding of not guilty before hearing the closing addresses.
He opined of the two works brought into the court room for the trial: “It was as if they were mute sentinels unable to tell who created them and when.”
Having accepted the guilty verdicts, Justice Croucher said the fraud was “audacious in its perpetration”.
The prosecution said Siddique used his skills as an artist to create three works imitating Whiteley’s Lavender Bay period, and Gant used his connections and reputation in the art world to sell them.
Gant purchased an authentic painting by Whiteley for $1.65 million in 2007 and this was used by Siddique to create the fakes in his Collingwood studio.
Through the Window was offered for sale for $950,000, but not sold.
Orange Lavender Bay was sold for $1.1 million.
Blue Lavender Bay was purchased by Sydney Swans chairman Andrew Pridham sight unseen for $2.5 million after he had been advised it was “a trophy painting”.
“The paintings must have been pretty good because not only did two sell at these hefty prices, but a bevy of respected industry experts gave them gushing approval,” Justice Croucher said.
The fraud was discovered when book-binder Guy Morell, who worked at Siddique’s studio in Collingwood, showed police a series of photos that seemed to capture the creation of the paintings in 2007.
Whiteley died in 1992 aged 53.
In delivering his sentence, Justice Croucher quoted art critic Robert Hughes who said art prices were largely about voyeurism and toxic snobbery.
“They are what you see when you peer up the anus of culture,” Justice Croucher quoted from Hughes.
He added: “By their verdicts in this trial the jury may well have accepted that similar thoughts motivated art dealer Peter Stanley Gant and art conservator Mohamed Aman Siddique.”
Justice Croucher sentenced to Gant five years in prison with a minimum of two and a half years.
Siddique was jailed for three years, with 10 months to be served immediately and 26 months suspended for three years.
In the case of Siddique, Justice Croucher said he extended an “element of mercy” given the “tragic loss of face” he had endured.
The matter will go before the Victorian Court of Appeal.