One of New Zealand's foremost art dealers has vowed to reimburse the family of the late surrealist artist Edward Bullmore after he sold a Bullmore painting and didn't pass on the proceeds.
John Gow, co-owner of the Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland, sold the work for more than $5000 five years ago, but says he had lost the paperwork that went with it and was unsure who the owner was.
This is despite the artist's daughter, Marianna Bullmore, writing to the auction house that was selling the painting in 2007 to raise concerns that it was a "missing" work and to ask for proof of ownership.
The Sunday Star-Times revealed last weekend that around 140 Bullmore works are missing or unaccounted for and that many others were sold by the artist's brother-in-law and Christchurch art dealer Pat Condon without accounting to the owner, Bullmore's widow Jacqueline.
Condon sold one major work, a portrait of Jacqueline when she was pregnant, to Te Papa museum for $150,000 but failed to pass on the proceeds to her.
A Star-Times investigation into what happened to the Bullmore collection, recently valued in its entirety at $3.6 million, has found that around 10 paintings were exhibited and put up for sale at the John Leech Gallery in 1990, which Gow and his parents ran together.
Four works sold, others were sent to Condon in Christchurch, and Gow retained four works in the hope of being able to sell them. One of these was a watercolour of a pile of dead trees called Mamaku Landscape (Log Pile), completed the year before Bullmore's death in 1978, as well as a nude study.
There is no record of any correspondence about the works until 2007, when the family became aware that Log Pile and the nude were up for auction at Art & Object in Auckland. Marianna Bullmore wrote to Art & Object raising her concerns and asking for Gow to provide ownership paperwork. She did not hear back and she left the matter there, as police were at the time investigating the missing works. No charges were ever laid.
Gow said Log Pile was one of many works sold as a clearout of stock after he had bought his parents out of the business. It was bought by the Rotorua Energy Consumer Trust for $5392 and because the paperwork was lost, "vendor unknown" was recorded against it.
"The money sits there until the vendor puts their hand up, and then they get paid." Gow said he had lost track of Jacqueline Bullmore's whereabouts. He recalled being phoned by Art & Object at the time of the auction and told Marianna Bullmore was questioning ownership, but did not hear from her directly.
"At the time we were extremely busy, we were merging businesses, we'd had this sale, there was a lot of paperwork – yeah I forgot about the phone call and to follow that backwards."
Gow said keeping track of provenance was easier today.
"We have maybe 2000 people who have paintings with us and paperwork does get separated sometimes, not now with computers, very rarely."
He would pay the family the proceeds of the work, minus a few hundred dollars for storing and insuring the painting over 20 years.
Marianna Bullmore said she was angry that Gow seemed to be suggesting it was her fault for not calling him. The onus was on Gow to contact her once she raised concerns with the auction house, she said. She said while the painting had sold for a fair price, she would rather have had the work back.
She wants to know what became of the nude study, as the family had no record of its sale. Gow said he believed it had sold in 1991 and the proceeds passed on, but he could not prove it without paperwork.
- Sunday Star Times