Weeks from facing court, the man charged with dealing in fake Brett Whiteleys speaks of his love of art and hate for the rich. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Whiteley or wrongly: alleged con man opens up on art fraud charges

A detail of the contested Whiteley, Orange Lavender Bay, allegedly painted by Mohammad Aman Siddique.

By his own admission, Peter Gant shouldn’t be meeting me. He doesn’t much talk to the media, and he’s due in court in two weeks on charges of art fraud – a finding of guilt could condemn him to a jail cell. Mere witnesses in the case have apologetically cited their legal advice and refused to comment. 

This is the usual run of things. But not with Gant. 

He sits at a bar’s table on a busy footpath. There’s a glass of red wine before him, and a copy of Graham Greene’s blackly humorous spy novel Our Man in Havana. Gant is in his 60s, with short silver hair and a flat face. He has small, intense eyes. There’s great intensity to him, and over the next few hours I watch him swing from sullen fury to riotous laughter. 

I order a beer before the most notorious art dealer in Australia tells me he’s not looking for any favours. “I’ll just be honest with you,” he says. “You write what you need to write.” I place my notebook beside the bottle of wine.

In many ways, it’s not surprising that he has agreed to meet. Peter Gant, art dealer, is not your average man. His life is frequently described as “colourful” – an expression that scarcely does justice to the sum of the man’s destructive habits, hatred of boredom and stubborn iconoclasm. 

“I fucking despise inherited wealth,” he tells me, his eyes furiously animated. “Art used to be about things. It used to be important. Now it’s just a vehicle for rich people to make more fucking money.” 

This thought seems to thoroughly depress him, and he turns his dejected gaze towards the table. 

1 . Police raids

In March, the professional and private premises of Mohammad Aman Siddique were raided by Victoria Police in Collingwood and Templestowe respectively. Siddique is an admired art conservator who has advised many institutions, including the National Gallery of Victoria. Police recruited Melbourne University art scholar and conservator Robyn Sloggett to join the raid. They left with a range of suspected fraudulent artworks. 

For Andrew Pridham, the chairman of the Sydney Swans, and Steven Nasteski, a luxury car dealer, the raid could not have come soon enough. In 2007, Pridham bought an ostensible Brett Whiteley painting called Big Blue Lavender Bay for $2.5 million. Pridham later came to believe that the painting was fake, and demanded – and received – a refund. 

In 2009, Nasteski bought a supposed Whiteley titled Orange Lavender Bay for $1.1 million. But he too would later be advised that the painting was fraudulent. 

Peter Gant was involved in selling both paintings, which he insists to me are real. “Of course they’re fucking real, and these fucking idiots can’t see it.” Last month, Gant was charged for the alleged deceptive trading; Siddique was charged with producing the alleged fake works. 

A senior art figure, who wishes to remain unnamed, told me months earlier that there was, he believed, a spate of Melbourne-made duds hitting the market. “The question is: who is making them?” He had some ideas. 

According to Gant, Siddique was raised in Uganda until Idi Amin began violently expelling Indian foreigners in the 1970s. It sent Siddique’s family on a desperate voyage – largely on foot, Gant tells me. “They went to India to get citizenship,” he says. “Then they trekked to the British embassy in Moscow. There’s a film about this. They embarrassed the embassy into finally giving them citizenship, then they went to London and Siddique studied at some of the best art schools in the world. His qualifications on artistic conservation are of the highest standard.” 

Eventually, Siddique moved to Australia and lived in Ballarat where he was a conservator for regional Victorian art galleries. He was supremely qualified and often in demand. The art figure quoted earlier told me: “He was polite and studious. He was disciplined and very skilled.” 

Others who know him have volunteered a similar picture of Siddique – a calm and careful professional, and a very different man to Whiteley, who was recalled to me as an acerbic, ruthlessly witty genius. 

“Siddique is absolutely shattered,” Gant tells me. “This is a nightmare for him. He doesn’t have my ‘fuck the bastards’ attitude. It is an awful time for him. And it will stain him.” 

We are a few drinks in now and Gant seems less suspicious of me. He is expansive, profane and repeatedly expresses his innocence. He is also, as was suggested to me by intermediaries, very likeable. 

Gant would like nothing better than to swill wine and riff passionately on the artists and writers that have stirred him. “Have you ever looked at something, an artistic object, and had the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? I have. It was Raphael’s Transfiguration at the Vatican. I was obsessed by that for a long time.” 

For a man who has been embroiled in scandal for decades, it cannot be said he isn’t gripped by a sincere love of art. He tells me he started drawing at age five, and in his early teens discovered Robert Hughes’s book The Art of Australia. “That was an incredible book,” he says reverently. 

Gant places an enormous importance on intelligence and cultural sophistication, and becomes a happy jukebox of appraisals of his favourite writers – Saul Bellow, John le Carré, Gore Vidal. Then, shoulders slumped, he laments that no one reads books anymore. “I can’t get my kids to read,” he says. This oversized, uncompromising emphasis on reading and erudition feeds an enormous temper. Gant returns, again and again, to the “vulgarity” of the art world. He sees it as populated by wealthy heathens, inured by greed from ever being stirred by aesthetics or ideas. He slams the table or turns his probing gaze towards me. Spirituality and learnedness has gone to the sharks. 

His anger then turns towards Pridham and Nasteski, whom he sees as avatars of modern greed. 

Gant tells me the suspect Whiteleys were acquired from a close friend of the artist in the late ’80s. “I bought them in ’89 from Christian. He was Whiteley’s best mate, drug dealer and art dealer. You had to deal with Christian to deal with Whiteley. Christian was his everything. Everyone knows this.” 

When I ask why it took 20 years to sell, he tells me: “Is it illegal to not sell a painting? Am I obliged to sell it? No. It was my collateral, and I was holding it securely.” 

In addition to the authenticity of the Whiteleys, however, questions have been asked over the documents purporting to support their provenance. In the case of Orange Lavender Bay, Gant supplied a catalogue of an exhibition the painting appeared in, as proof of its authenticity. But analysis determined the catalogue was a fraud – the quality of paper and resolution was not available in the 1980s. 

Gant says there’s a very easy explanation for this: the catalogue was printed recently from the original proofs. “In the late ’80s I’d do exhibitions, and we made catalogues back then. I was preparing such a catalogue for an exhibition that would include the Orange. But then my best friend died suddenly. Just like that. Well, I had a mini-breakdown and I walked away from the gallery. That exhibition never went ahead, and we never finished the catalogue. All we had were the trial pages for it. Many years later, I found those old proofs and I took them to a printer so I’d have records of them.” 

The art world, like most intense subcultures, is both enlivened and stricken by gossip. Forgery is an element that serves both. For a very long time, fakes have concerned galleries and the four major auction houses of Australia. But in this hermetically sealed world, dependent upon credulous buyers, this concern usually expresses itself timidly. 

In my conversations with art figures over the past few months, there has been a sense of a conspiracy of silence. The same names are repeated to me, but a combination of mutual interest and a near-impossible burden of proof prevents those suspicions from becoming workable. 

In the past there have been many civil suits, but few criminal charges and fewer convictions. It is not illegal to copy paintings or mimic artists; it becomes a crime only when replicas are knowingly sold as the real thing. 

The difficulty in prosecution is twofold: determining the authenticity of a painting, and then determining that the seller possessed criminal intent. Mens rea becomes a hopelessly slick principle to grasp. In fact, the law’s burden of proof – largely unimpeachable as it is – leaves prosecutions so hamstrung as to almost incentivise the criminal production of duds. And in the art world, everyone knows it. 

2 . ‘Witch trials’

“What friends?” Gant laughs bitterly, showing his stained teeth. “I’m persona non grata. My best friends are my wife and my children.” As he speaks warmly of his kids, his daughter calls and he playfully hands the phone to me. “Hello?” I say. Gant cackles. 

Gant tells me he has been subjected to malicious campaigns, errant reporting and “fucking witch trials” in the past. He says people wilfully misconstrue him, and that “rich bastards have made up their minds about me”. 

He concedes that his reputation is unsalvageable now, and speaks fondly of people who he admits would probably “pretend not to know me if you asked them”. 

Gant seems simultaneously proud and disappointed in his status as a pariah – but he will not allow contrition to soften his position. He insists that he has done nothing wrong, other than to associate with dilettantes. Gant has rallied in the trench, but there are a lot of forces advancing on his position. 

We’ve spoken now for four hours and Gant has lost track of time. He’s startled when he looks at his watch – he’s due back in Geelong in an hour for a family event. He needs to get to the train station, and quickly. “I hate Melbourne now,” he says. “No one knows me in Geelong.” 

He takes a final swig of his wine before he departs. “I don’t give a flying fuck if it goes to trial or not. If it goes to trial at least we can prove authenticity – otherwise there’s doubt.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Alleged Whiteley con man opens up".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter.