Suspect art: Was deal too good to be true?

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Ben Plumbly, from Auckland's Art + Object, in front of Gordon Walters' painting Mokoia. Photo / Greg Bowker
A McCahon sold at auction for less than $17k? Kim Knight smells a rat.

By Kim Knight

Did someone just get the art deal of the century - or was the bargain basement sale of works labelled Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters too good to be true?

Experts here are questioning the authenticity of two items that went under the hammer in East Sussex, England, earlier this month.

Eastbourne Auctions bills itself as a 21-year-old family-run business "offering everything from a masterpiece to the kitchen sink". This month its fine arts catalogue included an apparent Kiwi connection.

Lot 888 was described as an acrylic on canvas board, "inscribed and labelled 'Colin McCahon 1978 Truth from the King Country, Load Bearing Structure - Large Eight'" with an auctioneer's estimate of 200-300 ($350-$530).

The above gouache and collage artwork bearing the signature "Gordon Walters" sold for £6000 ($10,600) in the UK this month - well below the value of an original painting. Photo / Greg Bowker
The above gouache and collage artwork bearing the signature "Gordon Walters" sold for £6000 ($10,600) in the UK this month - well below the value of an original painting. Photo / Greg Bowker

In New Zealand, an authentic painting from that series would sell for between $50,000-$100,000. At Eastbourne Auction's high-ceiling brick and steel warehouse an hour's drive from London, it went for 9500 ($16,800).

Minutes later, Lot 923, a gauche and collage work listed as a "yellow and black Kosu [sic], bearing a signature Gordon Walters '75" fell for 6000 ($10,600) - well above the auctioneer's estimate of 50-80, but a far cry from the $20,000 an authentic Walters collage could fetch here.

How did artworks with the signatures of two of New Zealand's greatest painters come to be selling dirt-cheap at a provincial auction house in the United Kingdom? Where did they come from? And are they genuine?

The Weekend Herald contacted Eastbourne Auctions last week. Over the phone, an employee acknowledged the receipt of emailed questions, but the business has, so far, failed to respond.

Meanwhile, based on the online catalogue images and comparisons to other work by the artists from the same period, experts have told the Weekend Herald the so-called Walters is "unequivocally" a fake, and the McCahon likely to be one too - but all were puzzled by a sage-green label affixed to the back of both works.

The inscription on the painting sold in the UK.
The inscription on the painting sold in the UK.

The inscription on an authenticated McCahon.
The inscription on an authenticated McCahon.

The label, in spindly art deco font, advertises Tasman Gallery, a Christchurch-based art dealership and picture framing business operated nearly four decades ago by Colin K. Ritchie.

Ritchie died in 1988. A former employee, who did not wish to be named, confirmed the green label was in use by the Tasman Gallery's framing workshop until the early 1980s. She said although "many hundreds" of works brought in for framing would have been stickered, the label was not affixed to works handled by the sales side of the business which specialised in older New Zealand landscapes, rather than the contemporary abstract art of the likes of McCahon and Walters.

Colin McCahon is regarded as this country's most important contemporary painter. An online project to catalogue his complete works, dating from the mid-1930s to the early 1980s, contains more than 1000 entries. It includes numerous paintings from The Truth from The King Country series, which included six sub-series, each of multiple works. There is, however, no record of a "Large - 8".

Peter Simpson, who has written books on McCahon, says the database is incomplete, but its descriptions of other paintings from the "large" series call the UK sale into question.

The work auctioned in Eastbourne had a white backing with an inscription in the manner of McCahon's distinctive cursive font. By contrast, the reverse of authenticated "large" paintings, as listed on the McCahon database, are inscribed in block letters. One original, viewed last week by the Weekend Herald, was black with white writing; as is the reverse of another work in the series, photographed on the bench of McCahon's studio at the time it was painted and reproduced in a major book on the artist.

Could Eastbourne Auctions have a lost McCahon?

"I don't think so," says Simpson. "When I first saw it, I thought it looked genuine. The thing that has made me the most dubious is the handwriting. Although it's a fair imitation of Colin's hand, if you compare it closely, there are all sorts of differences in the way that individual letters are formed."

Colin McCahon made more than 20 paintings for his 1978-79 Truth from the King Country series. An authenticated work valued at $55,000-$75,000. Photo / Greg Bowker
Colin McCahon made more than 20 paintings for his 1978-79 Truth from the King Country series. An authenticated work valued at $55,000-$75,000. Photo / Greg Bowker

The work, said to be part of the 1978-79 Truth from the King Country series, that sold in the UK for £9500 ($16,800).
The work, said to be part of the 1978-79 Truth from the King Country series, that sold in the UK for £9500 ($16,800).

Simpson describes the Truth from the King Country series as "almost insanely complicated" in its permutations, but says if the auctioned "Large - 8" was authentic, it was unusual in its composition.

"If you look at the T in comparison to all the other 25 versions on the database, none of them have a narrow cross bar and a thick vertical ... it's quite a handsome image. It just doesn't look quite right."

Continued below.

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Simpson says he's sure "it looks a lot easier than it is" to fake a McCahon.

"The imagery looks simple ... but he was an absolute master. He was a very skilful painter and his touch is extremely distinctive. Once you have become familiar with it, it's not easy to pull the wool over the eyes of someone who knows McCahon's works well."

Serious doubt has been cast on the "Walters" from the same sale.

"This is clearly not a Walters for various obvious reasons," says Laurence Simmons, associate dean (postgraduate) of the University of Auckland's Faculty of Arts.

"By the time Walters got to 1975 he was painting very, very straight lines. Everything was very perfect. You'll notice the bottom of some of the geometricised koru forms are flat, they've been cut off ... the upper koru form is not rounded, like the third one down is."

Simmons says the auctioned work lacks the exact proportions and symmetry of an original.

The "Gordon Walters" signature on UK-auctioned work, top, versus the signature on an authenticated Walters, below.
The "Gordon Walters" signature on UK-auctioned work, top, versus the signature on an authenticated Walters, below.

Photos / Greg Bowker
Photos / Greg Bowker

"The other thing is the signature. I know Walters' handwriting very well ... it's not Walters' handwriting and I've gone through the archive and looked at all the letters and I can tell you that from looking at it."

And, to add to the intrigue: "I have seen another from the UK that was similarly 'bad'."

Simmons is referring to a second painting with a Walters signature sold in February at a separate Sussex auction house, Bellmans. The online sales record for that work reads "Follower of Gordon Walters (1918-1995), Korn [sic] III". However, a photograph of the painting's reverse shows no attribution beyond a Gordon Walters-like signature - and no sign of the word "follower".

Estimated by the auction house at 200-300, it went for 5000 ($8800). An original black and white Walters' koru painting could be worth up to $80,000 in New Zealand.

Simmons says the paradox of a Walters - and what makes him so hard to fake - "is he tries to remove the signs of his painting, yet he puts so much effort into doing that, that they can only be hand done."

Ben Plumbly, director of Art + Object, reiterates that Walters was an "absolute perfectionist. He would pore over works for years and years and years and that's an obstacle for fakers and forgers ... you can't pick up the nuances, it's sort of a negation of the hand, so you can't see any brush strokes. It's as if it was painted by a machine."

Both Plumbly and Simmons say Lot 923 appears, by comparison, clumsy and rough. Plumbly says he would "unequivocally" state it was a forgery. He's less certain about the McCahon: "But I wouldn't buy it. I wouldn't have the comfort to buy it."

Plumbly says art buyers should always ask about a work's provenance - its known history, and how an auction house came to be selling it.

"The people who have talked to me about these works have asked that question and haven't been able to get an answer.

"Right away, if you're a potential purchaser, alarm bells should start ringing."

His concern is that dodgy works could find their way into the New Zealand market.

"Last year, around $28 million worth of art changed hands at auction in this country in one year, and that's probably about 30 per cent more than what has ever happened before.

"The New Zealand art market has grown, and what's happened as it has grown is the worth for our leading artists, whose work is scarce, and a lot of the best examples are held in public galleries and they're never going to be made available for sale, has increased in value rapidly. The downside of that is people see that - and they maybe look to create opportunities through fakes and forgeries."

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