Law & Crime

Neighbouring families worth millions, a colourful character’s deceased estate, and at the centre, a stolen painting – a scurrilous tale that would do Dickens proud. By Jan McGuinness.

The tale of the stolen Rupert Bunny painting

Detail of Rupert Bunny’s Girl in Sunlight, c.1913.
Credit: PR IMAGE

A story played out this week for the amusement of those interested in the doings of the rich and quirky. It saw a mystery solved, and a stolen Rupert Bunny painting valued at $250,000 returned after 23 years missing. According to reports, the finger was pointed at the wealthy, gay and long-dead Melbourne property investor and art collector Peter Rand.

But if this picture of quiet repose, depicting a woman reading under a white parasol in a sun-dappled Parisian garden, could tell a story it would rate but a chapter or two in a much broader tale. Indeed, the fate of Bunny’s Girl in Sunlight, circa 1913, is but a subplot in a saga of Dickensian proportions, themes and characters. Its focus is a tangled litigation of such longevity as to rival that of Jarndyce & Jarndyce in Dickens’ novel Bleak House. It encompasses Victoria’s first settlers, ASIO, vast wealth, Melbourne’s establishment, theft, brothels and police raids.

Like Jarndyce & Jarndyce, the litigation surrounds the settling of an estate – that of Rand, who died of prostate cancer in October 1997, leaving a fortune then worth $19 million. It consisted of property in Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula, his principal dwelling “Mahonga” in Domain Road, South Yarra, 42 units in Hawthorn, 25 units in Richmond, 12 units in East Melbourne, and personal property including valuable jewellery, furniture and paintings, of which Girl in Sunlight was the most valuable. Paul Harpur, a solicitor involved in setting up a trust for one of Rand’s heirs – an ex-lover named Douglas Clairborne – lodged a caveat in late 1997 against a grant of probate to the executors of Rand’s will, setting off a trail of Supreme Court claims, counterclaims and appeals over various matters pertaining to the estate that appears to be finally exhausted by the restitution of the valuable Bunny.

One of those matters concerned a dispute over control of Rand’s assets involving Michael Aquilina, Rand’s other major beneficiary, and Paul and Pamela Harpur, who had leased and occupied Rand’s Sorrento property, “The Sisters”, since 1989. “The Sisters” is no ordinary beach retreat, but a three-acre property with direct access to Sullivan Bay beach and, even more important for the historically minded, the site of Victoria’s first European settlement in 1803 by British lieutenant-governor David Collins. It is acknowledged also by Richard Cotter in No Place for a Colony as being of great Aboriginal significance.

According to court documents, Rand made a will in September 1997 but the Harpurs produced a deed of trust executed on August 27 that appeared to dispose of almost all of Rand’s property. The Harpurs claimed Rand had executed the deed to avoid pressure over the will from his partner, Michael Aquilina, but could not produce the original, which was stolen from their accountant’s car. Mrs Harpur and her son Guy, who according to the deed, Rand “loves greatly”, were the beneficiaries of the trust, which, if effectively constituted, would have retained little or no property to pass to the beneficiaries of Rand’s will. The executors claimed the deed to be inauthentic and therefore invalid and that even if it were executed it was obtained when Rand was mentally and physically impaired. They prevailed, the Harpurs appealed and lost.

By then it was late 2007. The Harpurs finally moved on – although they continued action against the estate on other matters – and “The Sisters” was sold to Richard Shelmerdine, a fourth-generation member of the Myer family, for $18.4 million in cash. It has subsequently been subdivided into lots sold for more than $6 million each, despite protests over its heritage significance from local residents, the Mornington Peninsula Shire Council and the member for Flinders and Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.

So who was Peter Thomas Evan Rand, the man no longer extant but at the centre of all this controversy? As in death so in life, according to those who knew him: Rand was a flamboyant, well-dressed figure in and around the art, fine porcelain, furniture and high-end decorative art scenes of the ’80s and ’90s. He cut a dash and liked to be noticed.

“He was well known locally and nationally,” says Jon Dwyer, director of Australian art at Mossgreen Auctions and formerly of Leonard Joel and Christie’s. “He was a tall, thin guy with strawberry blond hair who liked the finer things and had a keen eye for decorative arts and pictures. Not a big buyer but certainly quite active both for himself and the clients he advised and bought for.”

But there was another aspect to his personality. “Dodgy” or “colourful character” – in the Sydney sense of the term – are descriptions most often cited by those not wishing to be quoted. Though he inherited wealth and was obviously an astute property investor, Rand “apparently preferred to minimise, even avoid tax obligations”, according to court documents from 2011 in the continuing disputation over his estate. Indeed, Rand owned properties operating as illegal brothels, had criminal connections, and often featured in media reports of vice squad raids at a time when he was known in the vernacular of the day as “Pete the Poof”. Post-legalisation in 1986 he was the official owner of a South Yarra brothel.

And so to the matter of the missing painting by Australian impressionist Rupert Bunny, which turned up in Rand’s estate. Talk of its whereabouts had circulated in Melbourne’s art circles for two decades following its theft from the Blairgowrie home of Albert “James” Watt on April 11, 1991.

Coincidentally, Rand and Watt were former neighbours and known to each other. Their mothers were friends and lived in adjacent apartments in Marne Street, South Yarra, and later at addresses not far from each other in Domain Road. Living with them were their sons, between whom there was a 15-year age gap, James Watt being the elder. He was a career army officer who never married and looked after his ageing mother until she died in 1969, three years short of his retirement in 1972. He then moved to a modest unit in Blairgowrie not far from “The Sisters”.

Watt was Brigadier Charles Spry’s right-hand man in setting up ASIO and gave his life to serving Australia, according to one close to his circumstances. “The one thing he had to show for it, and his prized possession, was this gorgeous painting, which he treasured. It was like a smack in the face when it was stolen, and he died two years later to the day.”

Watt bought the painting at Decoration Co. auction house in Melbourne in November 1953 for 26 pounds five shillings, a considerable sum at the time. Thereafter it was proudly displayed in his homes, although he could not afford to insure it.

Police described its theft as “targeted”. No other artworks were taken and the robbery occurred during Watt’s regular morning walk to buy The Age, in which the theft was duly reported and a reward advertised for its return. Neither the police investigations nor the ads produced results.

Following Watt’s death, his nephews, executors and heirs, Jim and Michael Watt, continued the search, circulating flyers to art galleries and dealers offering a substantial reward, and engaging a private investigator, again without success.   

Meanwhile, Rand had acquired the painting some time before August 1994, when McCann’s Auctions valued it. No other evidence of purchase such as a bill of sale or evidence of payment could be produced, however, when it finally came to light and the nephews contested possession. For by now, Rand had died and willed the painting to his soon to be long-suffering solicitor and executor, Frank Levy, a prescient compensation perhaps for all that he would endure in the courts over coming decades. Rand had wanted to will him “The Sisters”, but Levy demurred and his wife chose Girl in Sunlight from two paintings then offered. It hung in the Levys’ East Malvern dining room until 7am on May 4, 2010, when police seized it on a tip-off, the Levys being unaware it was stolen. The National Gallery of Victoria was staging a Rupert Bunny retrospective and the Watt brothers decided to publicise the theft again. Someone remembered having seen it at the Levys’ two years previously and contacted the Watts.

And so to court once more, where in November 2012 the Watts prevailed over Levy, who sought ownership of the painting on the basis that the Watt brothers’ proprietary rights to it had extinguished. The latest round, last week, was an unsuccessful appeal against that decision.   

So, this week, a chapter closes on Girl in Sunlight. But how will the Rand estate saga end? Presumably when the beneficiaries of Rand’s will, Messrs Aquilina and Clairborne, now living comfortably on the income from the estate, both die and the capital devolves to the NGV and the Anti-Cancer Council. The NGV we hear, knowing nothing of Rand and his artistic interests, is surprised and delighted by the prospect.

 

Correction: Girl in Sunlight was incorrectly dated c.1813 in the paper's print edition.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "The Bunny in the potboiler". Subscribe here.

Jan McGuinness
is a Melbourne journalist and author.