There’s been a telling court case in Australia over a work by the artist John Olsen that displays the weaknesses of treating art as a valuable asset when so much of the underpinnings of provenance is dependent upon memory, personal records and family remembrances.
To sketch out the background, a painting came up for auction in Australia that was once owned by and painted for Olsen’s second wife. The work had been ‘lost’ to the family many years before. So when it came up for auction, the assumption was that the painting had been stolen. The story turns out to far more dramatic than a theft:
Sotheby’s maintained it was willing to co-operate with the investigation but did not reveal the vendor’s name to police either, and after some weeks the police told the Olsens they could not proceed because of scant evidence as to the painting’s history. At this point the Olsens called in a private investigator, Guy Oatley, who unearthed the first lead pointing to the missing work’s fate.
The trail led back to English art collectors Pat and Penny Allen, with whom the family had once lived in London and a call from John Olsen to Pat put the last piece of the puzzle in place.
Pat Allen reminded Mr Olsen he had gifted the painting to a cousin of Pat’s in or around 1967, in return for the use of a house in Spain. The Olsen family had stayed there while recovering from a horrendous car accident they had had near the French-Spanish border in 1966.
The accident, Tim Olsen recalls, had been serious enough to put himself, then aged 5, and Louise, then aged 2, and their parents in hospital for several weeks, his father’s painting arm so badly broken that a subsequent infection nearly resulted in its amputation.
“Unfortunately my father’s memory, at the age of 87, had not served him well in regard to remembering exactly what had happened all those decades ago, there was a huge trauma that attached to that whole experience which would also not have helped.. . .. but my parents were so grateful [for the house] it appears that they gave the picture in gratitude,” he said.
Ironically Mr Allen’s cousin (who has not been named) didn’t like the painting – now estimated to be worth $250,000 – which was why it had been kept rolled up.
After their discovery the Olsens immediately sought to discontinue the case on December 12, leaving the judge to rule on costs on the following Monday, December 15 .
The mystery of the ‘missing’ John Olsen painting The Mother and a row with Sotheby’s (Sydney Morning Herald)