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.