The star turn of a premier Auckland art auction - a Colin McCahon painting valued at up to $300,000 - was pulled from sale at the eleventh hour this week, following Sunday Star-Times questions about the condition of the work.
The 1959 enamel on board painting Elias disappeared from a Webb's website listing on Thursday, less than three hours before it was due to go under the hammer.
Held in the collection of artist Doris Lusk until her death, it had an estimated worth of $250,000 to $300,000. It was described as "brilliant" in an essay in the Important Paintings and Contemporary Art auction catalogue, where it was listed as Lot 23.
But on Thursday evening, auctioneer Charles Ninow gave no further explanation when he told the crowd: "Lot 23 has been withdrawn".
Earlier that day the Star-Times had sought comment on restoration treatment carried out on the painting. Photographs supplied to the newspaper showed a portion of Elias had been repainted.
In the most significantly noticeable difference, patches of a dark under-surface, that had previously been showing through a deteriorated pale yellow area in the upper third of the painting, were no longer visible.
It is understood that last year, another auction house declined to handle the sale of the work because they believed it required too much conservation treatment.
An emailed condition report on Elias, supplied by Webb's through an automatic request button on its website, states "this work has undergone some restorative treatment" and that "retouching has been applied where movement/craquelure has resulted in slight but visually discernable breaks in the imagery".
The report states that in keeping with the ethics governing good conservation practice, all treatment that has been applied is removable; that the work is "sound and stable" and it will "no doubt be remembered as one of the finest by paintings [sic] by Colin McCahon presented at auction".
When contacted, Webb's declined to answer further questions - including revealing who had carried out the conservation work, whether it was ordered by the auction house or the seller, whether the treatment had been taken into account when establishing an estimated sale price and, generally, when treatment work would be considered to affect the integrity of an artist's original intent: "How much repainting is too much repainting?".
McCahon, who died in 1987 of alcohol-related causes, is one of New Zealand's most prominent artists. He is famous for his use of text (I Am), religious exploration and deep love of the land.
The highest price known to have been paid for a painting by a New Zealand artist was for McCahon's Walk, which Te Papa national museum purchased for $3.1m.
The newspaper also sought comment on whether any detail beyond the emailed condition report had been provided to potential buyers.
In a letter to the Star-Times on Friday, Webb's chairman Christopher Swasbrook confirmed Elias had not been included in Thursday's sale. "We believe it should be made clear that at no point has Webb's hidden the fact that restoration work has been done to Elias. Restoration of such pieces is common and is required to ensure that they are available to be viewed and enjoyed in the future."
Two years ago, another work from the Elias series sold for $500,000 at rival Auckland auction house Art+Object. Back then, the auction catalogue described 1959 as a "landmark year" for McCahon, as it was the first time he produced an entire series of text-based paintings developed from a single idea. Art+Object director Ben Plumbly declined to comment this week.
Sue Chetwin, Consumer New Zealand's chief executive, said purchases of art from "somebody in the trade" were covered under the Fair Trading Act and Consumer Guarantees Act.
- Sunday Star Times