Sunday, January 14, 2007

Welsh art travels for London show
Renoir's La Parisienne (picture: National Museum of Wales)
Renoir's La Parisienne was donated to the national museum
Some of Wales' finest arts treasures are going on display 150 miles away in London - but for a limited period only.

Renoir's iconic impressionist work La Parisienne, which had not left Cardiff's National Museum of Wales for over 20 years, is the star of the show.

The Art Treasures of Wales exhibition at Christie's in London is to raise awareness and funds for the museum.

The four-day event also marks the start of a year of celebrations for the centenary of the art collection.

More than 30 paintings, sculpture, works on paper and applied arts will be on show from Sunday to Wednesday at the London auction house.

We are holding this exhibition to give people a glimpse of our treasures
Museum director general Michael Houlihan

La Parisienne, a legacy from the art collecting sisters Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, and one of the highlights of the first impressionist exhibition of 1874 is the star of the show, according to the museum.

Also on view are other well-known works like Cezanne's Midday, L'Estaque, of 1879 and Monet's San Giorgio Maggiore by Twilight of 1908.

The museum is using the exhibition as a platform to raise funds for the redevelopment of its displays at Cathays Park in Cardiff, where it is placing art on the ground floor.

It has received grant aid from the Welsh Assembly Government, but still needs a further £1.7m for the work which will group the collections within one continuous series of galleries by 2009.

Little-known collection

But it also said it wanted to raise awareness of the fine art on offer for visitors to Wales.

Museum director general Michael Houlihan said: "We are holding this exhibition to give people a glimpse of our treasures in the hope that they will support us in our efforts to create a gallery worthy of the collection and encourage people to visit us at home in Cardiff to see these works of art in all their glory."

Dolbadarn Castle by Richard Wilson
Richard Wilson's Dolbadarn Castle is among Welsh works on show

Paintings by Welsh artists and in particular the rich tradition of landscape artists led by Richard Wilson and his famous view of Dolbadarn Castle are also on show at Christie's.

More recent artists - among them Gwen John, Lucien Freud and David Hockney - are also included, along with a recent purchase, Kamikaze by Peter Blake.

Sculpture and examples of the museum's little-known collection of fine miniatures have also been packaged for the trip to London.

Charles Cator, Christie's co-chairman, said: "The exhibition in January will provide a wonderful opportunity to view some of the outstanding works of art from the museum and we look forward to welcoming visitors from far and wide to this superb exhibition."

A series of informal gallery talks by the museum's curators will be held on each day of the Christie's exhibition.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The London-based auction house, Christie's, tallied sales totalling more than $363m at its spring and autumn Hong Kong auctions this year, compared with just $100m in 2003.

In a region where a Chinese bank looking to raise $22bn can attract half a trillion dollars in initial public offering of shares orders, $19.4m does not seem that much for a piece of porcelain. The price paid for an 18th century imperial Chinese "swallows" bowl at the Hong Kong auctions of Christie's - a world record for a Qing dynasty ceramic - is a reminder that Industrial and Commercial Bank of China's mega-IPO in October was just one facet of an investment craze sweeping Asia. "What's happening to us is symptomatic of what's happening to the world," says Edward Dolman, Christie's chief executive. "It's being driven by the extraordinary amounts of cash that are around. It's a great time to be selling art."

The London-based auction house tallied sales totalling more than $363m at its spring and autumn Hong Kong auctions this year, compared with just $100m in 2003. Rival Sotheby's, which concluded its biannual auctions in the territory in October, realised sales of $246.5m. Mr Dolman credits the nouveaux riches of China and India for the current Asian art boom, but despite their enthusiasm they are still only keeping pace with their western peers.

Regardless of whether an auction is held in the US, Europe or Asia, Christie's calculates regional sales totals based on the addresses registered by buyers, providing a rare window on to global wealth creation and capital flows. This yields some distortions thrown up by tax havens, but it also shows Asian purchasers accounting for a relatively modest 10 per cent of demand. This is because the rich are getting richer everywhere, not just in Asia, and as they do so their capacity for conspicuous consumption of art is expanding. "We've never seen so much money coming in from China, Russia, Wall Street, the City, India," Mr Dolman says. "We always think, ‘Is it about to go?' But most of our clients can always afford [to buy art]. It's about how confident they feel, and there is a feeling of stability about the clients' sources of wealth."

After the stock market crash of 1987 damped demand in the US and Europe, Japanese money supported the market for another two years. Christie's thinks Asia could again account for 30-35 per cent of the market within five years. But before this happens Chinese and Indian buyers will have to demonstrate an interest in art from beyond their own regions

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mesa’s Art on the Move lets you dress up for a good cause
Even the hoity-toitiest of arts organizations in the Valley of the Sun — aka the land of cargo shorts and flip-flops — know not to expect blacktie fineries from their audiences.

But once a year the Mesa Arts Center Foundation humbly requests the presence of your cummerbund for its annual fundraising gala, Art on the Move.

The $175-a-plate dinner, auction and evening of light entertainment on Nov. 11 at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Mesa is not only a way to support MAC education programs and performing arts groups — organizers hope to bring in $125,000 from the evening — it’s also an excuse to dust off tuxedos and pull cocktail dresses from the backs of closets.

“Quite frankly,” organizer Debbie Ardolino says with a chuckle, “this is my first opportunity this year to dress up.”

The effort goes toward a good cause, she says. This year’s city budget cutbacks in arts support have threatened several MAC programs, including its Stageworks theater for young audiences. The foundation largely picked up the slack. Art on the Move, now in its seventh year, is only part of more than $780,000 the foundation looks to raise this year.

Beyond raising ducats for the arts center, the event also unites a few of Mesa’s favorite arts groups: Will Prather’s Broadway Palm, the Valley’s mega-dinner theater, is hosting the event in its supperand-showhouse and providing a multicourse meal and entertainment from its current production of the musical “A Chorus Line.” The evening will be emceed by Brian Nissen, star and creator of “Citrus Valley Playhouse,” a staged variety show that’s quickly become a staple at the MAC.

The silent and live auctions will include donated items from Valley watercolorist Peri Miller and Scottsdale architect Paolo Soleri, who has donated a set of the ceramic and metal wind bells for which he’s best known. Guests looking to get away from home for a while can bid on an eight-day, seven-night trip to Maui.

“It’s a coming together of all these people to support the Mesa Arts Center,” says Ardolino, “which is wonderful.”

Art on the Move
When: 6 p.m. Nov. 11
Where: Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, 5247 E. Brown Road, Mesa
Cost: $175
Information: (480) 219-8052 or

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Art plan to get public airing
A proposal by Seattle artist Buster Simpson for artwork downtown will be the subject of a public meeting.

Art work that may one day chime downtown has raised some eyebrows among downtown business owners, although others embrace it.

But, partly to answer questions posed by downtown business owners, a meeting to let them hear and see the proposal first hand is set for Thursday.

The 7 p.m. meeting, open to the public, is in Room 130 in Olin Hall on the Whitman College campus. The artist, Seattle-based Buster Simpson, will explain and demonstrate the work and answer questions. ``I hope to have a discussion,'' he added.

He will also show the latest refinements to the work, which is slated to be installed behind Macy's above where Mill Creek daylights.

Titled ``Walla Walla Bound,'' the work now includes a campanile, or bell tower, made of discs from a harrow plow. Some of the discs would be stacked upon and attached to an upright pole. Another row of discs would line a horizontal pole that would extend over the open channel. Both poles would protrude from a base placed behind a wooden fence now behind Macy's. The fence would be replaced with a 10-foot-high, wire-mesh fence.

The discs would play locally produced compositions at regular times in the day and also sound briefly to mark events in the creek, such as a fish passing or changing water levels.

The bell tower would run on a solar panel attached above the vertical part of the sculpture. Next to the solar panel would be another panel displaying an image of the McNary Dam, the first dam the creek water hits as it flows down the Columbia River.

A second part of the project entails attaching license plates stamped with words along creek containment walls between Park Street and Ninth Avenue. Several plates strung together as short poems would be posted together at different spots.

Both parts of the work are meant to focus attention on efforts to rehabilitate the creek to a more natural habitat.

Money for the $381,000 work comes from the Washington State Penitentiary expansion project. By state law, 0.5 percent of construction costs for new state facilities has to go to public art.

`Still just too many questions'

Kathleen Obenland, president of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, said board members feel downtown business owners haven't had enough say in the proposed project.

``We feel there are still just too many questions,'' she said. Among those is how loud the disc will be, ``whether it will add to or detract from downtown.''

The board also has questions about placing the discs behind Macy's. She noted a teen fell into the creek and drowned there recently, raising safety concerns about the site.

The parking lot behind Macy's has been considered as a place for a multi-level

guess (the disc sculpture) would be covered up,'' Obenland said.

Although he noted he's only the city's liaison on the project, which will be gifted to the city by the state Corrections Department and Arts Commission, city Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont said he's heard his share of questions about the proposed work as well.

They've included questions about how loud, how often and what times of day the discs would ring, what they'll sound like and whether they would disrupt downtown business operations.

People have asked if the disc volume will be controllable, how the discs will be mounted in place and whether someone could climb the fence.

He's also heard from people ``that love (the art work),'' Dumont added.

One resident who used to work near the intersection of Main and First Avenue told the U-B he remembers when, years ago, ``50 miniature bells'' used to be play ``old nostalgic tunes'' on the hour at the downtown intersection.

Bob Branscum, then manager at a First Interstate Bank branch, which no longer exists, near the bells, said he remembers people complaining about those bells.

In particular, he remembers one or two artists who worked downtown and complained the bells disturbed ``their peace and quiet.''

So he finds it ``interesting'' that now an art work that will chime is being proposed downtown. ``I guess thought patterns have changed,'' Branscum said.

At a previous City Council meeting on the art work, Phil Wasser, owner of Land Title of Walla Walla County, recalled how his building and a downtown church once played chimes but stopped after people complained.

In a phone interview earlier this week, Simpson responded to some of the concerns.

He said the discs will sound similar to church bells. And how loud they ring is adjustable, even from a remote location. He is proposing the discs play a composition at noon and 6 p.m. daily and then chime to mark events in the creek. He also is proposing the discs not ring at all between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Simpson noted that neighbors don't seem to complain about the bells that chime every hour in the clock tower at Whitman College. And he hopes the community is willing to give the chimes a chance.

For example, a song could play for a minute at noon. ``But maybe it would be so beautiful people would want it to go longer,'' Simpson said.

At the very least, he hopes the disc would chime to mark fish passing upstream, as the art is meant to focus the community on efforts to rehabilitate the creek.

In response to questions about the proposed site, Simpson envisions his work fitting well with a possible parking garage, particularly if it includes stores on its first floor.

As he interprets the Downtown Master Plan, the area behind Macy's is envisioned as a public passageway and gathering place and he thinks his work would add to that.

Simpson also thinks the work would meld well with the Master Plan's goal of developing a downtown promenade along Mill Creek.

Simpson also responded to concerns about safety around his proposed sculpture. As his fence would be higher and more transparent than the present one, he believes it will make the area safer than it is now.

But, for all the questions some downtown business owners have raised, others strongly support the proposal.

Nathan Morgan, game buyer at the Book and Game Co. at First and Main, said he's excited about having more art downtown.

He thinks it would draw more people downtown, give them something to talk about and give him an opportunity to point people toward other downtown art.

Stephenie Bowen, part owner of Sweet Basil Pizzeria on First Avenue, said putting art behind Macy's would be better than what she sees in that parking lot now at night - ``some kids hanging out'' and being ``very destructive'' and creating ``a lot of trouble.''

Even if the discs ring in the evening, it would be better than ``kids cussing and blasting their music so loud,'' what she claims comes from the parking lot now, she added.

Bob Austin, owner of Merchants Ltd. on Main Street, said he wondered about Simpson's proposal at first but then viewed Simpson's work on his Web site and ``it put a big smile on (his) face.''

On the site, he found out about a similar work Simpson did in which he lined up old farm equipment in a field. When the cowboy poet Baxter Black first saw that work, he was skeptical at first, too, Austin said.

But, when Black stopped and looked at it, he realized it ``honored our ancestors and the American agricultural heritage,'' Austin said. With time, Black and others got to like that piece and now send visitors there with pride.

``I think that's a perfect analogy to what (Simpson's) doing here,'' Austin concluded.

He also said the ``handful'' of downtown business people with concerns about Simpson's work are the same people ``who say nay to anything.''

Speaking for the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation board, Obenland said the board generally ``loves'' art downtown, but ``it has to fit downtown.''

And although the board has felt downtown merchants haven't had enough say in this proposed work, she recognizes that's what Thursday's meeting is for.

Dumont said the city had urged the public meeting partly because of the lack of public input at several previous meetings when Simpson made presentations to the City Council, Planning Commission and before the committee that retained him.

Dumont also said downtown businesses received a special invitation to the Thursday meeting so they ``have an opportunity to hear and see the proposal and comment on it.

Simpson invited the public to come as ``just a beginning to open a discussion about the creek running through town and how it can become more of a city amenity.''


For more information on the proposed art work, Walla Walla Bound, go to Information about the proposal is also included in a show that features the work of artist Buster Simpson, which is on view at the Sheehan Gallery on the Whitman College campus through Oct. 5.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

New Islamic art shows at Boston Museum

Associated Press

A woman with flowers in her hair, beaded necklaces and red lipstick picks up a blossom to smell. Birds, monkeys and insects surround her as she walks through a colorful forest.

This image from a 300-year-old velvet wall-hanging is not what usually comes to mind when most Westerners envision the Muslim world. But a new art exhibit at Boston College hopes to change that perception.

"When you see the word 'Islamic,' the first word you think of shouldn't be 'terrorist,'" said Jonathan Bloom, an Islamic and Asian arts professor at Boston College. "If we recognize that Islamic culture has made great contributions to world culture, then we're already a step ahead."

Bloom and his wife, fellow Islamic and Asian arts professor Sheila Blair, are curating "Cosmophilia: Islamic Art from the David Collection, Copenhagen," on view at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College through Dec. 31.

The term "Islamic art" describes both sacred and secular art created in places where Islam was the main religion. "Cosmophilia," or "love of the ornament," features 123 items that show the importance of decoration, one of the signature features of Islamic art.

The items in "Cosmophilia" are on loan from the C.L. David Collection, a nonprofit museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. The collection was established in 1945 by Christian Ludvig David, a wealthy lawyer and businessman who died in 1960. Because the collection is located outside of a major art center, it remains virtually unknown. This is the first time Americans will see any of the items featured in "Cosmophilia."

Bloom hopes the exhibit confronts a popular misconception that Islamic art is only about religion.

"If people know anything about Islamic art, which they usually don't, the one thing they think is that Islam prohibits images of people and other living things. This isn't true," said Bloom, gesturing to the many items in the exhibit that depict people and animals.

The items on display range in date from the seventh century to the 19th century, and originate from Western Europe to East Asia. Some items are secular while others are sacred, and they are made from materials including wood, ceramics, ivory, metalwork, stone, textiles and paper.

Bloom and Blair went out of their way to produce an exhibit they say is more "user-friendly" than traditional museum exhibits, which often lay out items according to chronology or medium. Instead, they divided the exhibit into five visual themes that the average viewer would notice when looking at each piece: figures (depictions of people and animals), writing, geometry (geometric patterns), vegetation-arabesque (floral patterns) and hybrids (items which display multiple themes).

"We're not trying to talk to art historians," said Bloom. "We don't want people to have to walk through the exhibit reading a book."

Bloom pointed out three small boxes made of brass and ivory, which he says academics call "caskets."

"For most people, a casket is what you'd put a dead person in. We call it a box. You learn not to use the fancy terminology," he said.

Exhibition and collections manager Diana Larsen, who designed the exhibit installation, placed each item at the height it would have been displayed in its original setting. For example, a large wool rug is laid out on the floor, and a 700-year-old blue and turquoise Mihrab tile is hung on the painted outline of a Mosque in a position that indicates the direction of Mecca.

In the four years since they began planning the exhibit, Bloom, Blair and museum director Nancy Netzer taught three undergraduate classes at Boston College related to the exhibit. Students researched the background of individual items, painted the hallway outside of the museum based on tile designs from the Ottoman Turks, and helped write labels for each display.

Netzer says the exhibit will provide a positive message about Islam and its values.

"It's different from what we read in the newspaper every day," she said. "We're not reading about the beauty and culture of the Muslim world."

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Art gets under the skin

A HOBART artist's work using human tissue has sent authorities into a spin.

But Alicia King just wants people to debate the technology of biology.

Artist-in-residence at the University of Tasmania School of Medicine, King, 25, has grown a cell "membrane" over her sculptural forms, using a stock line of human tissue cells.

The uni's ethics committee has given her permission to use her own and consenting patients' discarded tissue.

The Royal Hobart Hospital has rejected her advances so King plans to use her skin cells.

Her Melbourne exhibition, which opens tonight, coincides with parliamentary stem cell legislation debate -- adding interest to her art.

"I use the cells over three-dimensional forms, it forms an outer membrane," said King, who is doing her PhD in fine art.

She uses a stock line of cells called He--La, fast-growing ones originally taken from a cervical cancer in 1951 and used in labs around the world.

Her work, which uses dyed-pink cell membranes, poses questions about what it means to be alive.

"That's what it's all about, about how we define ourselves as human," said King.

"I'm interested in issues like xenotransplantation, using animals to grow organs for humans. I think people should be part of the debate.

"It's about how we treat other living things and our relationship with them."

King says she has her own concerns about animal welfare, but not hard and fast rules.

She hopes to use discarded tissue, probably skin cancers.

"Tissue is already used for research, with consent, and then discarded. But I'll use my own anyway, taken off by a surgeon in a shave biopsy," she said.

RHH chief executive officer John Menzies said such use of tissue could not be approved.

"While we appreciate an artist's creative desire to use various and unusual materials in the creation of artworks, the Royal Hobart Hospital does not and can not authorise the use of human tissue or clinical waste for the purpose of or the use of such materials in art," he said.

King's work, called I'm growing to love you runs until September 24 at the Linden St Kilda Centre in Acland St.

Art Museum: A Small Investment for Large Return
Art Museum Director Janet Riker.

Art Museum Director Janet Riker.

The University Art Museum has greatly enhanced its profile since its inaugural exhibition in 1967, becoming a leading exhibition facility in the region and a critical part of the intellectual infrastructure accessible to UAlbany students. Yet major upgrades and facelifts have been harder to come by.

"It is time to address the restoration and renovations required to make the University's Museum a venue that fully accommodates the most recent developments in contemporary art and meets the accepted standards of the field," said Art Museum Director Janet Riker.

Three Selective Investment Awards will boost the Museum's ascent up the aesthetic ladder. "The initiatives were developed as part of the Compact Planning process by the entire Museum staff," said Riker. "They are critically important projects but very difficult to support with general operating income or through outside fundraising. They will enable us to accurately assess our overall facility needs, launch an endowment campaign and address a much-needed technical upgrade.

"While not huge infusions of cash, they represent substantial investments in the Museum's future. I'm thrilled now to be able to move forward on our goals, and confident that these resources will help us leverage additional support."

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The fine art of faking it

August 12, 2006

ART forgery is almost as old as portable art itself, dating back at least as far as the Romans copying the Greeks, but its exposure never fails to cause a sensation.

In purely monetary terms, the National Galley of Victoria's disputed Head of a Man is worth an estimated $25million if it really was painted by Vincent van Gogh, but almost nothing if it was not.

As The Australian's art critic Sebastian Smee has pointed out it is not the first time doubts have been raised about this jewel in the NGV's crown. In 1999, Rembrandt's Portrait of Rembrandt, bought in 1933, was confirmed as genuine sufficiently to satisfy the NGV after testing. Nor, by any means, is the now disputed picture the only van Gogh painting that has been called into question.

In 1932, a Berlin cabaret performer turned gallery owner named Otto Wacker went on trial in connection with 30 fake van Goghs he had displayed. Suspicions were aroused by the paintings even though Wacker had obtained certificates of authentication from Julius Meier-Graefe, an art critic at one of Germany's most respected newspapers.

In his 1970 book The Fabulous Frauds: Fascinating Tales of Great Art Forgeries, Lawrence Jeppson writes that Meier-Graefe testified in court that some of Wacker's van Goghs "were of such high quality that, if proved false, no expert in future would ever be able to distinguish between true and fake van Goghs with any certainty". Wacker was convicted of fraud on circumstantial evidence and the source of the fake van Goghs was never discovered.

Despite the exposure of the Wacker forgeries, not all of them dropped out of circulation. As late as 1970, a "self-portrait" peddled by Wacker was hanging in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

The NGV's van Gogh portrait may be many things, including the genuine article, but at least the disputed picture does not appear on the list of known Wacker forgeries. Nor does the van Gogh sunflower painting bought by a Japanese corporation in 1987 for nearly $US40million; its authenticity has been defended by the National Gallery in London, where it was exhibited for 10 years, against claims that it is a fake.

The NGV's portrait could be considered a bargain compared with Blue Irises, for which disgraced Perth entrepreneur Alan Bond agreed to pay $US49million in 1987, though he subsequently failed to produce the cash. Even an unsigned minor work by van Gogh can attract serious money, as occurred in 2003 when a Japanese auction house sold an obscure portrait for $US500,000 after initially setting the reserve price at $US80. A last-minute authentication resulted in some spirited bidding.

"The problem with art," writes novelist Peter Carey in Theft: A Love Story, "is the people who buy it." But while art forgery typically emanates from unscrupulous dealers and neglected artists out for revenge on the snobbish art world that has failed to reward their genius, the practice is not unknown even among the old masters.

Michelangelo was not above producing fakes, according to his contemporary biographer Giorgio Vasari, who died in 1574. In Lives of the Artists, Vasari, who met Michelangelo, describes how the then struggling young artist, who was an accomplished copyist, was advised that an original life-size statue of a sleeping Cupid he had sculpted could be sold for a higher price if the buyer thought it was an ancient artefact. Vasari wrote that Michelangelo then buried the statue and used other ageing techniques.

When the buyer, a cardinal, learned of the deception, he promptly demanded a refund. Interestingly, in this case Vasari sided with the artist against the victim of the hoax: "The fact is that, other things being equal, modern works of art are just as fine as antiques; and there is no greater vanity than to value things for what they are called rather than for what they are."

In despair, the artist character in Carey's novel asks: "How do you know how much to pay if you don't know what it's worth?" Vasari acknowledged that "every age produces the kind of man who pays more attention to appearances than to facts". Meanwhile the Cupid statue, which, despite the deception perpetrated by Michelangelo would now be considered priceless, appears to have been lost.

The life of an artist is often chaotic and some modern artists have proved themselves adept at manipulating the trade in their work. Pablo Picasso, who was the most commercially successful artist in history as well as one of the most widely imitated, was aware that his signed works were much more valuable to collectors than unsigned ones.

Picasso would also authenticate his own work on the basis of his own assessment of its quality. He told an interviewer who asked him how he remembered which paintings were his and which were not: "If I like it, I say it's mine. If I don't, I say it's a fake."

Picasso has even been quoted as saying he was prepared to claim a fake as his own work: "If the counterfeit were a good one, I should be delighted. I'd sit down straight away and sign it."

The art market in Australia, as elsewhere, is riddled with fakes, or at least it's rumoured to be. In contrast to the vigorous public discussion of literary hoaxes, little is said publicly by the art establishment about forgery in this country, a reticence that has been interpreted as self-protection. No one who buys or sells art wants to see the expensive investment suddenly rendered worthless.

It is a matter of public record, however, that forgeries of many of Australia's best-known artists have been listed in sale catalogues, only to be withdrawn. According to online consultancy Caslon Analytics, assumed Australian fakes include a "Russell Drysdale" known as Boy Feeding Dogs, a "Brett Whiteley" called Lavender Bay, and a picture entitled Siege at Glenrowan that, it was claimed, formed part of Sidney Nolan's iconic Ned Kelly series.

Whistleblowers such as historian Susanna De Vries-Evans and art dealer Lauraine Diggins have claimed that art fraud in this country is highly organised and extensive. DeVries-Evans admits to having once bought a fake Arthur Streeton and alleged that she received death threats followed her attempts to return it.

De Vries-Evans holds our libel laws partly responsible for creating what she says is a climate of fear in the art world. An unsubstantiated accusation of fraud can certainly prove costly. In 1995, a Double Bay art dealer who was falsely accused of selling fakes was awarded more than $100,000 by the NSW Supreme Court after a disgruntled overseas buyer claimed he had been sold a phoney Picasso lithograph.

Occasionally, though, some light touches this dark trade. A scandal broke in 1998 when it was revealed, during a court case in Sydney over a contested will, that hundreds of fakes had been sold by deceased Paddington art dealer Germaine Curvers. Painter William Blundell admitted that he had been paid by Curvers to produce a steady stream of what he termed "innuendos". The commissions from his patron included supposed Nolans, Arthur Boyds, Drysdales and even the odd Picasso. According to Blundell, the works were produced for a nominal fee merely as "decoration", though Curvers was said to have resold them at a profit of as much as 2000 per cent.

Blundell boasted of producing thousands of fakes over three decades; if true, that would make him one of the most prolific and versatile art forgers of all time. Some artists, he said, were a doddle. "The Whiteleys are easy," Blundell said in an interview with Ben Hills, "I can do 20 or 30 sketches in a couple of hours." A week after Blundell made his stunning confession, a Sydney auctioneer withdrew a Whiteley charcoal sketch from sale, citing buyer nervousness.

Forgery on an impressive scale has also been uncovered in indigenous art, with the incidence of real or alleged fakery similarly dependent on the stature and saleability of the individual artist.

Leading painters such as Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Kathleen Petyarre and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri have all found themselves embroiled in controversy. In 1997, Petyarre's estranged de facto husband claimed he was largely responsible for a prize-winning work entered by his former partner. A subsequent inquiry by the Museum of the Northern Territory found insufficient evidence to sustain the allegation.

Two years later, Tjupurrula admitted he had signed a work that was painted by someone else, while fellow artist Ginger Riley identified works bearing his name which he said he had not produced on sale at galleries in Melbourne and Adelaide.

In 2001, Adelaide art dealer John O'Loughlin pleaded guilty to selling fake Tjapaltjarri paintings, some of which had reportedly found their way into the NSW Art Gallery and Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Other indigenous artists have been exposed as impostors. Sakshi Anmatyerre was revealed to be Farley French, an Indian from Kolkata who sold works to Paul Hogan, the Sultan of Brunei and members of the Packer family. Male Aboriginal painter Eddie Burrup turned out to be Perth-based Elizabeth Durack, a white woman of Irish descent.

Large sums are involved, but art forgery is not just about the money. In reality, the estimate as to the market value of a painting such as Head of a Man is immaterial, given that a picture owned by a public gallery for so many decades is never likely to again be offered for sale. Of greater importance to the NGV, and the taxpayers who fund it, is how individual art lovers would respond to the picture if it turned out to be a fake. Would they be entitled to feel that their trust in the experts has been abused?

When the Eddie Burrup hoax was revealed, Art Gallery of NSW director Edmund Capon was quoted as claiming that the issue was of no importance in relation to the gallery's attitude to the work. "I don't give a hoot who painted it," he declared. "We're not judging the artist. We're judging the work of art."

Some of his colleagues, however, expressed outrage at the deception. Though some commentators claim that the issue of the artist's identity does not affect the aesthetic quality of creative work, no art exists in a vacuum. Biographical, historical and emotional factors are among those that inevitably shape appreciation of art.

The well-known legend of van Gogh, the painter who suffered for his art, feeds the public fascination inspired by his work and drives up the price. In our secular modern world, works of art attract some of the idolatry once associated with religious relics. Much of the popular appeal of Aboriginal art lies in the perception of an aura of pre-commercial spiritual authenticity.

We should not underestimate the ethical aspect of human creativity. Even if Picasso was correct when he said that art is the lie that tells the truth, faith in the genuineness of art is essential to an appreciation of its meaning and value. As professor of philosophy Denis Dutton explains: "Part of what individuals admire and enjoy in art is innovation and originality; forgery by its nature is derivative and unoriginal. Historically speaking, the artist is an imaginative and revolutionary creator; the forger is always a parasite."