THE family of the renowned artist Charles Blackman have called in police because they say the painter was asked to sign two works - sold at auction for almost $120,000 - that are not his.
The 84-year-old artist suffers a memory disorder linked to years of heavy drinking and his family say he could not have known he was signing the early, naive works of his dear friend Franki Birrell, at whose wedding he was best man.
Birrell and the Blackman family raised the alarm six months ago but the unnamed buyers of the paintings have been in the dark until now - unaware they might have bought Birrells, not Blackmans. On Friday, the early-1980s paintings - Girl With a Starry Dress Bouquet and Girl Behind a Shower Screen - were still listed as Blackmans on the website of the auctioneer, Deutscher and Hackett.
The family and Birrell are also demanding answers from two other parties: Walter Granek, the expert who authenticated the works for the Blackman family trust; and Blackman's long-term guardian, the accountant Tom Lowenstein, who is trustee of the family trust.
Deutscher and Hackett's executive director, Damian Hackett, was ''dumbfounded'' when contacted by Fairfax Media but he insisted he had relied on the advice of the Blackman trust to authenticate the works, and said they had followed a ''rigorous process to the T''. He said he could not now simply accept they were Birrells unless Mr Granek or Mr Lowenstein officially advised him ''they got it horribly wrong''.
''If that happens, of course we will happily contact the buyers and have the works returned immediately.''
Mr Lowenstein said: ''The only way to resolve who painted them is scientific tests. I am not certain they are Birrell's.''
He said he had asked on Wednesday for a statutory declaration from Birrell, although she told Mr Granek in early May that the works were hers. Mr Lowenstein said he had passed this on to Deutscher and Hackett, and it was up to the auction house to decide if it should contact the buyers.
Mr Granek did not return repeated calls. He helped to expose two Blackman fake drawings in a 2010 case, and Mr Lowenstein joined Blackman and his family in a ceremonial burning of those fakes. Unlike the 2010 case, Birrell says her pictures never pretended to be Blackmans. They were not even created in homage.
''Yes, there were strong influences,''
said Birrell, from Brisbane. For a few years after she started painting in 1980, she and her husband, the architect James Birrell, had been inseparable from Charles and his new, much younger wife, Genevieve, the second of his three wives. The Girl Behind a Shower Screen is, in fact, Genevieve.
It was Genevieve de Couvreur who alerted Birrell to the two ''Blackmans'' in early May. But it was Blackman's daughter, Christabel, who first noticed.
A conservator and artist who spent many years painting alongside her father, she was scanning the Deutscher and Hackett website on April 28 when she saw the paintings. The first had sold at auction for $78,000 in August last year, the second for $40,800 in November. Upon seeing thumbnail pictures of them, she was stunned.
'I was 100 per cent certain those paintings were not my father's,'' she said.
The Blackman family has instructed Aston Legal Solicitors and Barristers. Hugo Aston is Christabel Blackman's partner, in life and in business. He is also an art dealer and they run Aston Blackman. Their business includes the restoration of, and advice on, Blackmans.
Mr Aston, also representing Franki Birrell, said: "The matter has been referred to the police and we are instructed to commence civil action against a number of respondents. I invite the owners of the paintings to contact Aston Legal Solicitors and Barristers urgently.''
Christabel and her brother Auguste have been meeting and corresponding with the family trust since May, seeking action.
Mr Lowenstein said Mr Granek stood by his assessment of the work.
It is common practice for artists to sign any unsigned works years after they are painted. Franki Birrell says she is sure that she would have signed the two paintings in her own name, but she accepts that her signatures could have been removed many years before the auctions.
Mr Hackett said the vendor acquired the paintings from someone who had bought them directly from Blackman. The ''rigorous'' authentication process included finding that person, who had been a friend of the artist.
''Franki Birrell and Auguste Blackman may have spoken to the Blackman trust but they have not spoken to me,'' Mr Hackett said.
Asked if he should have contacted the buyers months ago, at least to alert them that doubts had been raised, he said: ''The point is, we rely on the Blackman trust … they have to say to us definitively that we have a problem. They haven't.''
How would the buyers react? ''The same as I'm reacting. They would be dumbfounded, in awe. It's very distressing - if, in fact, it is the case [that they are not Blackmans].''
He said the authentication process included Charles Blackman coming into his gallery to sign the paintings - for a fee - last July and October. ''Yes, Charlie has dementia but when he came in here, he was lucid and chatty. And he was standing with the gallery manager in front of the painting and said, 'I painted that'. And she said, 'I should certainly hope so.' ''
Blackman was chatty when Fairfax Media met him this week. He spoke of Alice in Wonderland - inspiration for his most treasured series, one work selling for more than $1 million.
Blackman also offered: ''I won't marry again''. To which Birrell laughed: ''Now you tell us.'' He shot back: ''I can't help it if they keep divorcing me.''
Blackman was also looking forward to the next exhibition of his work, in Melbourne, starting on April Fool's Day. His family says it wants to ensure no one else is taken for a fool.
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