Art scandal: valuable works go missing

TONY WALL
Last updated 19:24 18/03/2012
Edward Billmore's widow
Martin Hunter/FAIRFAX NZ

VALUABLE WORK: Edward Bullmore's widow Jacqui holds a self-portrait she calls The Seer.

Pat Condon
FAIRFAX NZ
ART DEALER: Pat Condon.

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An old man in a baseball cap stands at the gate of a Christchurch rest home, staring at the street as if waiting for someone to come and get him.

He has the distinctive face – slab nose, granite jaw, think Wal from Footrot Flats – that could belong in a Ted Bullmore self-portrait. It has to be Maurice, the late artist's brother.

There is evidence that Maurice and a Christchurch art dealer sold many of Bullmore's creations without accounting to their owner, Ted's widow Jacqueline, depriving her and the public of some of this country's most significant artworks.

Family investigations have found works were sold cheaply or even given away, ending up with everyone from publicans to criminals. Others made their way into art galleries and public institutions around the country. There are still around 140 works unaccounted for.

Maurice, who was sales agent for Jacqui Bullmore for seven years, is said to be losing his mind and can't shed any light on the whereabouts of the missing works. But some family members suspect he knows more than he's letting on.

At the mention of a work called Blue Cross of Sorrow, which so obsessed Maurice he tried breaking into an art gallery to steal it, his eyes light up. "Blue Cross of Sorrow, my favourite."

And the key question: Where are the missing paintings, Maurice? His eyes glaze over. He smiles, revealing a few stumps for teeth, and laughs at nothing in particular. He mumbles something indecipherable; conversation is hopeless. Whatever secrets this man holds are lost in a fog of dementia.

A few hours later he is still standing at the gate. Waiting.

At an earthquake-damaged council bedsit in Lyttelton, Jacqui Bullmore, 78, looks sadly at a small framed print of a Ted Bullmore self-portrait she calls The Seer.

Age has taken its toll, but she is still recognisable as the young woman in Bullmore's nudes that shocked conservative 1950s New Zealand.

Jacqui no longer has any of her husband's works, having gifted much of what was left of the collection to the Tauranga Art Gallery, the city where Bullmore began his art teaching career.

While there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by people who bought Bullmore works, Jacqui hopes that by going public, those with concerns about provenance will come forward so the collection can be properly catalogued.

"There are 140-odd works missing or unaccounted for, so where are they?" She suspects many are in homes in Christchurch. "After the quakes, a lot of those people have probably shifted."

Jacqui says she hasn't always made the best decisions, but tried to do her best for her husband's works. She was taken advantage of, she believes, by people who were supposed to be taking care of the collection.

"When you trust somebody and they've proved they're not worthy of your trust, it's terribly disappointing."

She met Ted in the mid 1950s at the Canterbury University College School of Art.

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"He was an amazing artist. I didn't know he used to look at me in the art room when we were doing life studies. Out of the blue he invited me to the arts ball."

They married in 1958 and moved to Europe, where Ted's career took off. They returned to New Zealand at the end of the 1960s with their three children, Ted taking up a teaching job in Rotorua. Tragically, he had Paget's disease, a degenerative bone disorder. He suffered intense pain and in 1978, on Jacqui's birthday, he died of a heart attack, aged just45.

Jacqui took the death hard, and struggled to cope. Eventually, around 1990, she spent a year cataloguing Ted's works, which were left to her in his will, and drew up an extensive agreement with his younger brother Maurice, a builder, to look after them and sell some on her behalf. He was to get a 40 per cent sales commission.

More than 700 works, including paintings, life studies, three-dimensional stretched canvases, sculptures, tiles and preliminary sketches were packed up and taken to Christchurch, where Maurice kept them in a warehouse.

The entire collection was recently valued at $3.6 million by Christchurch art valuer Neil Roberts.

Over the years Maurice would sell the odd work, and drip-feed money – a few thousand here and there – to Jacqui. But she became concerned that he wasn't accounting to her properly and keeping the works in poor storage conditions. In 1997, she terminated his agency, transferring it to art dealer Pat Condon, who had been involved in earlier sales.

Maurice was angry at being sacked and never accepted it, believing Jacqui had no right to cancel their contract. It was later discovered he had sold works, sometimes to pay debts, without accounting to Jacqui. These included 11 paintings, one of them the major work Perseus, alone valued at $80,000, sold to a publican for a total of $45,000. The works were kept in an office above a bar, and later sold to a Christchurch art auctioneer.

Two others, including Blue Cross of Sorrow, originally called Icon no. 3, were sold to a man with underworld connections, while several were either sold cheaply or given to a collector. Maurice admitted a portrait of one of Ted's children, which was never supposed to have been sold, ended up in a rest home, but he never revealed its precise location.

Maurice was supposed to have nothing more to do with the collection, which was taken to Condon's Canterbury Gallery in Papanui Rd, but he continued to introduce potential buyers to Condon and receive a commission for doing so.

At one point, Condon wrote to Jacqui: "I have picked up over the years that [Maurice] has the impression he owns the works. As you are aware, he can be most difficult to deal with, but I can handle him in my own way."

During the first couple of years of Condon's agency, sales were slow. Then in 1999, he announced that he had found a "major buyer".

It sounded promising, but Jacqui's troubles were just beginning.

Pat Condon is a builder turned art dealer who used to carry cash in a supermarket bag as he cycled around town. He has a reputation in art circles as being loose with his record-keeping, some of his former clients complaining that he would take a long time to pass on money from sales.

"His objective was to be a millionaire," says one source who knows Condon. "Art was a means to that end."

In 1999, Condon wrote to Jacqui Bullmore in Rotorua to say that a group of 20 people had formed an incorporated society called the Canterbury Collection, with the purpose of purchasing "as much [of Bullmore's] work as they can".

Each member would be depositing $500 a month into a trust account. Condon said he would take his 50 per cent commission, leaving Jacqui $5000 a month. The trust had committed to buying 22 works, with the "strong possibility of adding many more".

Condon wrote: "This exercise has been very satisfying to me and will certainly get sales of Ted's works out in the community."

Jacqui was excited. "It sounded like `here we go, this is going to be good'," she says.

Over the next couple of years, Jacqui received monthly cheques for $5000, while Condon would write to her each month saying his negotiations with the collective were going well. Despite Jacqui's pleas, he never supplied any receipts or invoices to say which paintings had sold.

In 2001, Condon wrote to say he had accepted an offer of $250,000 by the Canterbury Collection for all of Bullmore's works.

Prominent Christchurch lawyer Garth Gallaway, an art collector who later helped retrieve the Bullmore collection from Condon's gallery, says the suggestion that the entire collection was worth just $250,000, of which Jacqui would receive half, was "laughable".

Jacqui received $90,000 in total, but in 2003, the payments stopped and Condon stopped writing. He later said he had suffered a serious back injury.

Gallaway confronted Condon asking for details of the Canterbury Collection, its trust deed and names of its members, along with details of which works it bought and when.

No information was provided. There is no record of the Canterbury Collection on charities or incorporated society websites.

IN 2004, Jacqui and her daughter Marianna travelled to Christchurch to rescue what they could of the collection.

By this stage the Canterbury Gallery had closed, and the works were held at Condon's wife's gallery, Yvonne Fine Art in Bealey Ave. A meeting was held at the gallery, at which Gallaway confronted Maurice Bullmore and Condon, insisting they produce the works.

Marianna Bullmore, a Tauranga artist, remembers being shocked when she saw one of her father's unfinished works had been painted over.

"Condon had all the works out for us to see. There were all these gaps. I said, 'Where's this work and where's that work?"'

Gallaway says Maurice and Condon "agreed they had been involved in selling works they had not accounted for".

It was eventually discovered that, despite telling Jacqui the "Canterbury Collection" had bought everything, Condon and Maurice had sold six works to Christchurch collector Tony Poole, including important paintings from Bullmore's London period, for $112,000. One painting, The Gates, is now owned by the Christchurch Art Gallery and is valued at $90,000.

In April of 2003, Condon had also sold a portrait of a pregnant Jacqui to Te Papa in Wellington for $150,000. This was one of several pieces on a list of private family works which had been marked "not for sale".

Gallaway arranged for the works to be removed and stored at the City Art framing workshop in Sydenham. Other paintings were recovered from Maurice's house in Woolston. Later, Maurice returned an unfinished three-dimensional work he had defaced with blue biro.

In August of 2004, Condon reached a civil settlement with Jacqui. He sent one final letter to her and Marianna, simply saying: "I am very, very sorry."

In 2006, Jacqui gifted 293 works worth about $1m to the Tauranga Art Gallery, which launched a major exhibition. But the saga wasn't over. She visited a house in Cashmere which Maurice had built, and spotted the Blue Cross of Sorrow on a wall. The home owners said Maurice had asked them to store it. Gallaway contacted them, they agreed to hand it over to City Art.

Gallaway warned City Art's director that Maurice would try to take it back because of his obsession with the work, and sure enough, that night he was caught red-handed by the police on the roof of the building. He pleaded guilty to a burglary charge.

His brother, Hugh Bullmore, believes Maurice's actions were due to his deteriorating mental state: "Nobody took into account that he wasn't 100%." His ex-wife, Chieko, says he was bitter about being cut off by Jacqui, but he respected his brother and his art.

The Blue Cross of Sorrow was taken to Tauranga, but in 2007 a man with criminal connections turned up to take the painting. He would later be jailed for his part in a major burglary ring.

This man had convinced Jacqui that he was the owner of the work, having bought it from Maurice, and frustratingly for her family, she wrote a note saying it was his. The man threw the work in his car and drove off. The work later popped up for sale on Trade Me for $95,000. There were no takers, and the Tauranga Art Gallery eventually bought it back for about $20,000.

In 2007, Marianna Bullmore spent hundreds of hours doing an inventory of her father's works. She found that 708 works had been taken to Christchurch, and 509 repossessed in 2004. A total of about 140 were unaccounted for.

She laid a complaint with police, who had the file for four years, but took no action.

As recently as 2010, Condon was trying to sell Bullmore works. On behalf of an unnamed client, he offered a painting called Goddess of the Rainbow no. 2 to the Christchurch Art Gallery, which declined, having been visited by police and aware of contention around Bullmore works. The family say the work was never intended for sale, and Jacqui never received anything for it.

Condon told the Sunday Star-Times the dispute with Jacqui Bullmore was "all sorted. I'm not hiding anything".

Did he believe he had fairly represented her? "In the day, yes." No audit was done when the works were passed from Maurice to Condon, and Condon claims never to have had a catalogue of the collection and can't remember details of sales. He has talked variously of having a "brain injury" and "brain tumour" around the time in question, and was also under pressure because his wife had cancer. He denies ever acting dishonestly.

Marianna remains angry about the way Maurice and Condon behaved. "They used to rave on about how great dad was ... but they didn't give a toss about the works, all they cared about was the money and fobbing them off at mate's rates was fine. They had no respect for the value of the works. As an artist I know how you feel about your own work - dad would have been furious."

Tauranga Art Gallery director Penelope Jackson, who researched Bullmore for a Master of Philosophy degree, says Bullmore's works continue to pop up at auctions, but are known in art circles as "hot" and people tend to steer clear of them.

After all that happened, she says, Jacqui's decision to gift a large part of the collection to the gallery was amazingly generous.

"She lives in a council bedsit ... she could have sold the collection and bought sports cars, but she wanted it to stay together and have a permanent home."

Gallaway, who worked pro bono for the family, says the collection probably would have disappeared if they hadn't acted. He says the "colourful characters" involved have "done the art world a great disservice".

"My feeling is that had there not been so much nonsense around all of this, Bullmore would justifiably have been recognised as one of the country's finest artists," he says. "For this to have happened is a tragedy for the Bullmore family and the art community."

But he says Jacqui has to take some responsibility for the mess because of some poor decisions she made. "Part of the tragedy is her handing the works to Maurice, someone totally unfit to manage a collection as significant as this. It all fell apart from there."

Jacqui Bullmore says she finally has peace of mind, knowing that most of the collection is safe: "The works are looked after - at last."

TED BULLMORE – A SURREAL LIFE

Edward Bullmore was one of New Zealand's earliest surrealist artists and was a star in 1960s London, but his avant-garde and often sexualised works were too much for local critics. Living in Rotorua, with no public art gallery, in the last years of his life also meant he was marginalised. He was born in Southland in 1933 and attended Christchurch Boys' High, where he was a top rugby player and boxer. In 1956 he represented Canterbury at rugby. He studied at the Canterbury University College School of Art and Auckland Teachers' College and in 1956 began teaching art at Tauranga College. In 1959 he and his wife Jacqueline, also an art teacher, moved to Florence, Italy, where Bullmore studied for a short time with Italian painter Pietro Annigoni. In 1960 they moved to London. Bullmore's London period produced some of his most memorable works, including a series depicting the Cuban Missile Crisis. The highlight of his career was being invited to take part in an exhibition in Exeter in 1967, exhibiting alongside top surrealists such as Salvador Dali. Film director Stanley Kubrick bought two of Bullmore's painting constructions, and one appeared in A Clockwork Orange. In 1969 the family returned to New Zealand, Ted taking up a job at Rotorua Boys' High School. His Rotorua period was highly productive, but he suffered from a degenerative bone disorder and died in 1978.

- Sunday Star Times

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