Wendy Whitely at Brett Whitely Studio.

Wendy Whitely at Brett Whitely Studio. Photo: Sahlan Hayes

AFFAIRS OF THE ART: LOVE, LOSS AND POWER IN THE ART WORLD.

By Katrina Strickland. Melbourne University Press. 242 pages. $34.99.

If you are an artist, choose wisely when to die and the person who will look after your estate. This may determine whether you will attain posthumous immortality in the art world or end up on the scrap heap of art history. Roughly speaking, this is the thesis explored in this book.

Katrina Strickland

Katrina Strickland.

Katrina Strickland is a journalist who has been writing on art for 15 years, the past half dozen years as arts editor of The Australian Financial Review. In this intriguing little book she explores the world of the artists' estates and predominantly the role of widows who administer them. Her method has been to isolate a number of case studies of prominent artists, including Fred Williams, Brett Whiteley, John Brack, Arthur Boyd, Howard Arkley, Bronwyn Oliver, George Baldessin, Robert Klippel and Albert Tucker, interview those looking after their estates, and speak to the surrounding members of the art world, including art dealers, auctioneers, collectors, art historians and art critics. What is refreshing about this book is that it is primarily based on firsthand interviews, rather than presenting a rehash of art world orthodoxies and its established mythologies.

"The central idea of this book is that how an artist's estate is handled can feed into their reputation,'' Strickland writes. ''It's a mercurial concept that disappears every time you try to put your finger on it." This is not a clinical account or a statistical study and as the author gets to know her subjects, including Wendy Whiteley, Helen Brack and Lyn Williams, she develops a strong sense of empathy with them and shares their feelings of grief, guilt, obligation, love and duty.

How much power does an executor of an artist's estate really wield? It is not total, but it can be considerable. If there is artwork left in the estate, they can decide whether to sell, retain or donate to a public collection to strategically enhance the artist's reputation. They can manipulate and to some extent control the art market by differentiating ''autograph'' works from those which they can refuse to authenticate. This may be a question of quality control, where the sheep and the goats are separated, or sometimes through lack of knowledge or judgment authentic works are barred and fakes slip through the cordon. The main vehicle of control is exercising copyright permission. When this is withheld, the image of the artist's work cannot be reproduced and when an auction catalogue lists a major piece without a reproduction, buyer beware. Copyright can also be a weapon for controlling what is published about an artist. Felicity Moore's first monograph on Danila Vassilieff had to be pulped when copyright was withdrawn, while the monographs on Albert Tucker by Janine Burke and on Elwyn Lynn by Patricia Anderson were published under a cloud, without reproductions of the artists' works because their estates withheld copyright permission, finding objection with parts of the texts. An book on art without reproductions of the art discussed has always a sad look and often poor sales.

<i>Affairs of the Art</i> by Katrina Strickland.

Affairs of the Art by Katrina Strickland.

Strickland carefully documents how the different stakeholders have gone about managing the estates of those to whom they have been married. Lyn Williams and Wendy Whiteley made managing their artist husband's estates into a full-time job and ensured that their reputations were enhanced and they kept the flame alive. Helen Brack managed her husband's estate in an expert manner as well as maintaining her own professional practice as a highly respected artist. Few manage this balancing act. The reputations of Roger Kemp and George Baldessin were arguably set back by a couple of decades, for various reasons, and only in very recent years have these artists moved into the pantheon of great Australian art.

This is a unique and refreshingly honest book that tackles the complexities of the Australian art market, discusses the crooks and carpetbaggers who deal in fakes as well as art collectors who collect with their ears, rather than with their eyes. In part, it is because of the complexity of the art scene, that the widows of artists (plus a very small number of widowers) have been forced to take upon themselves the role of art police to defend their partners' reputations and standing in Australian art. For an art market that has an annual turnover of more than $100 million, it certainly lacks maturity, sophistication and often the ethical safeguards of Europe, Asia or the Americas. A recurring theme that runs throughout this book is that the best managed estates, as their first obligation while memories are fresh and documents are extant, compile a catalogue raisonne of the artist's work. It is only once that has been achieved that a major task of the estate has been fulfilled and the future trade in that artist's work has a firm foundation.

Affairs of the Art is a lively and spirited book, accessible in its language, and generally based sound on scholarship. It is a provocative book thT engages with a number of very sensitive and controversial issues and it is gratifying to remember that Strickland's first qualification was an honours degree in law.

Strickland will take part in a free Canberra Times/ANU literary event at Theatre 3, Manning Clark Centre, Union Court, ANU at 6pm on Tuesday, May 7. Phone 6125 7988 for bookings.