Tricks of the trade: Ron Coles and the mystery of the disappearing genitals, or, how to make a painting more saleable

9 06 2009

I had me a little flashback last night watching Four Corners’ fascinating report on fakes and forgeries in the Australian art market. In the course of the program,  a painting by Sidney Nolan was displayed that played a key role in reporter Quentin McDermott’s coverage of the Ron Coles scandal. But more of that in a minute. Back to my flashback… the painting in question brought back some very funny memories for me. It’s an old friend. Indulge me here as I take a little trip down memory lane.

When I was running the art department at Leonard Joel down here in Melbourne, without prior warning in the early ‘naughties, the upper management of the business decided to suddenly and rather dramatically slice and dice the staff in my department. Just two of us were left. As is the way of things in the art auction trade, the cycle of life continued. The end of year auction rolled around and with it, the all-important decision of which artwork to use on the catalogue cover. With my great work-mate, Rick Merrie, we chose the aforementioned Sidney Nolan painting – a deliberately subversive choice on our part (the cover is reproduced here). Our aims were two-fold – the gesture of the figure in the painting, standing alone and signalling up-river, struck us as a poignant and hilarious comment on the status of the art department.

“Excuse me, sir – have you seen the Leonard Joel art department?” “Yes. They went that way.”

Oh – the second aim? To get a penis on the front cover. Childish, yes. Unprofessional? Possibly, but also very amusing to us at the time. Yes, yes. I know. I did need to get out a little more often back then. All work and no play, and all that.

Back to Ron Coles. According to the Four Corners report, it seems Coles wasn’t as enamoured of our man with his dangling junk as were Rick and I. Sometime between its sale at Leonard Joel, and it turning up at Ron Coles’ gallery, our friend had been castrated, his proud man bits painted out. Which makes me sad, because I’ve always had fond memories of him. Although it does confirm what I’ve always told my students studying the art market at University – penises and portraits are the hardest things to sell. So to speak.

At least I will always have my catalogue to remember him by.


No wonder he’s hiding: Sydney bikies on the hunt for runaway art dealer Ron Coles and their missing millions

14 05 2009

In a jaw-dropping story published in the Sydney Morning Herald, it is revealed that the Australian art world’s man on the run, Ron Coles, is being pursued by what is described as an ‘outlaw bikie gang’. Although they didn’t specify exactly which outlaw bikie gang it is, I doubt it’s of the relatively blancmange ‘Brando in The Wild One‘ variety whose most threatening move would have been to throw a double choc-malt milkshake in your face. Anyway, it seems Coles may have absconded with millions of dollars belonging to this group of bikies. The article implies that he was laundering their money through his ‘Investment Gallery’, buying art with slightly tarnished cash and handing back wads of crisp, clean, brand-spanking new legitimate moola.

I don’t know quite what to say to this. Other than… ARE YOU INSANE?

Oh. And Run, Ron, Run.

Stolen Art: Should We Ever Let Bygones Be Bygones?

17 04 2009

Yves Saint Laurent's art collection is acutioned at Christie's in Paris.A few years ago I dropped in on an antiquities dealer I know from my time working in the auction trade. He’s great company, makes a killer coffee, and always has a new, thrilling, thoroughly engaging yet cringe-inducing story about his latest successful attempt to get his hands on a precious artwork or artefact of questionable provenance. To say that some of the things that have passed through his hands are of museum quality is an understatement.

For me, two particularly memorable pieces he showed me that day sum up the reality of the trade in antiquities. One was an exquisite, translucent marble Greek statue – relatively small, but perfect. I can’t be more specific than that because I have no desire to get anyone in trouble. Suffice to say that it was magnificent. It purportedly came to our dealer through the hands of an archaeologist who had excavated it on a small Aegean island and smuggled it out of Greece during the course of an official excavation. The second piece had been spirited illegally out of Iraq, just months after the Allies seized  Baghdad. It was an alabaster figurine of such beauty it brought tears to my eyes. 

As long as we continue to covet precious things and venerate objects of creative human endeavour, the trade in stolen art and artefacts will thrive. But the existence and focus of the trade raises some interesting questions. For example: China is threatening auction powerhouse, Christie’s, with “serious” consequences after the auction house refused to halt the sale of two 18th century bronze statues in its recent sale of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s art collection (one is pictured above). The sale caused such uproar in China that even martial arts legend Jackie Chan felt compelled to weigh in on the matter. The statues were allegedly stolen in 1860 by British and French troops from the Imperial Summer Palace in Beiing during the Opium War. Given that China is being touted as the new frontier for the art trade, the government’s threat to restrict Christie’s presence in China is a serious one. But the whole situation made me ponder – would the outcome have been different if Christie’s or Sotheby’s had been offered a looted crest taken from the facade of Buckingham Palace, or Abraham’s foot stolen illegally from Lincoln’s Monument? Is this a case of double standards? 

War loot is nothing new. But that doesn’t make it right.

I’m sure there’s plenty of earlier examples, but Nebuchadnezzar and the treasure from Solomon’s Temple is the earliest example I can think of. In recent years, irreplaceable relics from the cradle of western civilisation, Mesopotamia – the land between the two rivers otherwise known as Iraq – have been stolen and spread far and wide. The looting of Iraqi museums has been widely and rightly condemned. Yet on the other hand, the Elgin marbles, stolen from the Parthenon in the early 1800s by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, still retain pride of place in the British Museum. And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. To put the latter example in context, it would be a bit like if Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling was ripped out and spirited off to a museum in Beijing. Or if the Eiffel Tower was dismantled, stuck on a container ship and taken away to a cultural centre in Dubai. How would we feel about that?

It’s all very well to entertain the idea of universal cultural heritage. Just make sure it cuts both ways.

Image:  ‘The Guardian’

Art as investment: or, the root of many evils

29 03 2009





It seems the economic apocalypse will play out in many and varied ways in the art market.

In America, dealer Lawrence Salander has been arrested and charted with counts relating to larceny, fraud, forgery and perjury. Along the way, he managed to fleece tennis über-brat John McEnroe and film legend, Robert De Niro. The amounts are significant: prosecutors claim that up to $US 88 million has been soaked up by illegal dealings.

And we have our very own drama unfolding here in Australia. Until very recently, no major art auction was complete without Ron Coles and his hefty cheque book in attendance. Now, he has disappeared into thin air, leaving behind a chaotic mess of bad debts, dodgy paintings and accusations of fraud on a grand scale.

Through his prosaically named Sydney-based business, ‘Ronald Coles Investment Gallery’, Coles recruited many clients who had little or no experience in the art market. They gave Coles cash on the understanding that he would acquire investment art on their behalf, and store it for them. It seems that investors believed that Coles was holding a collection of art on their collective behalf worth $A 23 million. Local auction house, Bonhams & Goodman estimate that the collection seized in the course of the police investigation is worth somewhere in the vicinity of $A 400,000. Allegations are now leaking out that there are forgeries of work by at least four major Australian artists amongst the works seized by police. Needless to say, investors are not happy. Not happy at all.

If convictions follow from legal action the question must be asked: how did these people get away with so much for so long?

Unfortunate fact of life: the feeding frenzy witnessed in the art market over the last decade was fuelled largely by people whose overriding concern was the investment potential of the art they were acquiring. That, in itself, is not altogether surprising; it’s been shown that, to varying degrees, the great majority of art buyers do consider the investment value of an artwork prior to acquiring it. But what distinguished buyer behaviour this time around is that people were handing over large sums of cash to dealers for artworks that they never intended to take into their possession. They did not spend weeks painstakingly researching and examining an artwork’s various aesthetic and historical qualities, falling in love with it by degrees. No. These artworks were acquired as places to park disposable income or retirement funds, with the expectation that said investment would increase in value over a set period of time. 

It seems that for some dealers the temptation to initiate a painting ponzi scheme was too great to resist. Why sell a painting just once? Why not sell it to five people, none of whom ever expects to take it home and hang it above the sofa? As long as the cash keeps flowing via new investors, there’ll always be money in the bank to pay off clients who decide they want to ‘realise’ their investments. 

But there’s nothing new under the sun. It all reads like a chapter out of Stan Lauryssens’ recently published autobiography, Dali & I. According to his own account, Lauryssen did much the same thing when dealing in work by Salvador Dali in the 1970s and 80s.

Vanished..Ronald Coles at his art gallery in 2004.

Images: Lawrence Salander: NY Daily News; Ron Coles: Sydney Morning Herald