Charles Blackman with fellow artist Franki Birrell (left) and his daughter Christabel. Photo: Danielle Smith
ARTIST Charles Blackman's family 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 has a memory disorder and his family says he could not have known he was signing the early, naive works of an old friend, Franki Birrell.
Birrell and the Blackman family raised the alarm six months ago, but the buyers of the paintings have been unaware until now that they may have bought Birrells, not Blackmans.
The two paintings that have raised the Blackman family's hackles.
As of Friday, the early-1980s paintings Girl with Starry Dress and Bouquet and Girl Behind Shower Screen were still listed as Blackman's on auctioneer Deutscher and Hackett's website.
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 the artist's long-term guardian, accountant Tom Lowenstein, who is trustee of the family trust.
Deutscher and Hackett executive director Damian Hackett was ''dumbfounded'' when contacted by Fairfax Media, but insisted he had relied on the advice of the Blackman trust to authenticate the works, and said they had followed a ''rigorous process'' to ensure they were genuine.
He said he could not accept they were Birrell's unless Mr Granek or Mr Lowenstein officially advised him that ''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. But unlike the 2010 case - which also included a fake Robert Dickerson drawing - Birrell says she never pretended her pictures were Blackman's.
''There were strong influences,'' Birrell said. For a few years after she started painting in 1980, she and her husband, architect James Birrell, were inseparable from Blackman and his wife Genevieve, the second of his three brides. The Girl Behind Shower Screen is, in fact, Genevieve.
It was Genevieve de Couvreur who alerted Birrell to the problem of the two ''Blackmans'' in May. But it was Blackman's daughter, Christabel, who first noticed. A conservator and artist who spent many years painting in the studio with her father, Christabel Blackman was scanning the Deutscher and Hackett website on April 28 when she came across the two 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 made the images a bit larger and then there was no doubt: I was 100 per cent certain those paintings were not my father's.''
Mr Granek had been authenticating Blackmans for the family trust for about 20 years, she said, and has curated a major retrospective of Blackman's work.
The Blackman family has instructed Aston Legal Solicitors and Barristers. Hugo Aston is Christabel Blackman's partner. He is also an art dealer and they run Aston Blackman. Their business includes restoration of, and advice on, Blackmans.
Mr Aston, who is 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.''
Christabel Blackman and her brother, Auguste, have been corresponding with the family trust since May, seeking action.
It is common practice for artists to sign unsigned works years after they are painted. Birrell says she is sure she would have signed the works in her own name, but she accepts that her signatures could have been removed many years before the works were auctioned last year.
Damian Hackett said the vendor indicated he acquired the paintings from someone who had bought them from Blackman. The ''rigorous'' authentication process had included finding that person, who had been a friend of the artist.
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.'''