When it comes to paintings, provenance can count more than an artist’s signature. Kim Knight reports.

Auctioneers have halted the sale of an $87,000 Colin McCahon painting while they try to establish its ownership history.

The painting – from the same series as a work that was determined likely to be a fake when it came up for sale four years ago in the United Kingdom – went under the hammer last month at Auckland’s International Art Centre.

This week, the Parnell-based auction house confirmed the sale was on hold and it was trying to establish a fuller ownership trail.

Meanwhile, an expert who examined the painting before the auction, said while there were some anomalies in the information written on the artwork’s reverse, McCahon was known to make signing, dating and titling errors.

“The key question is whose error is it?” asked Dr Peter Simpson, an academic who has written three books on the country’s most famous modernist artist.

“Was it McCahon’s or someone else’s? If it was not McCahon, that would point to the painting not being genuine. My initial opinion was that since the work otherwise appeared genuine, the error may have been McCahon’s.”

According to Simpson: “If this particular work is a forgery it is infinitely more sophisticated than any other I’ve seen.”

“Truth from the King Country: Load Bearing Structures: Series Three” was listed in the International Art Centre’s July 27 auction catalogue with an estimated value of $55,000-$70,000.

Simpson says there are at least 37 works in the series, which includes six sub-series, mostly differentiated by the size of the commercial canvas board McCahon used.

The reverse of the painting under scrutiny is labelled both “large” and “third series” which Simpson says is “clearly a mistake – one work cannot belong to two sub-series” but “in all other respects the wording on the back is precisely consistent with what I have seen on other paintings in the series”.

Simpson, who has previously called the Truth from the King Country series “almost insanely complicated” in its permutations, says it is unusual in that it was never exhibited in full – to his knowledge, only 10 of the works ever went on public display. In addition, many were given away as gifts.

“These circumstances make establishing a certain provenance for these works unusually difficult.”

Simpson acknowledged that since his first examination of the painting, “I have discussed the authenticity of the work with some others. I was not fully persuaded by arguments that the work was a forgery, though I concede that I had not previously paid full attention to the work’s provenance, and that this is probably the key to establishing its authenticity”.

In 2017, Simpson was one of the experts who spoke to the Weekend Herald about the sale of a McCahon labelled work at an auction house in East Sussex, England. In that case, an alleged Truth from the King Country painting went for just $16,800. Experts called its veracity into question, with Simpson saying “it just doesn’t look quite right”.

Back then, Simpson said he was sure “it looks a lot easier than it is” to fake a McCahon.

“The imagery looks simple … but he was an absolute master. He was a very skilful painter and his touch is extremely distinctive.”

International Art Centre director Richard Thomson said he was aware there had been discussion around the planned Auckland sale of a Truth from King Country work, and he had spoken to a potential buyer about the possible need for more investigation.

“We said as long as you’re happy, we’ll go ahead and if you want to bid and keep going . . . but we’ll just find out the reassurance for you. And we haven’t been able to get that reassurance.”

Thomson said he still had buyer interest in the work, which hit $87,000 at auction, but would not proceed with any sale until he had more information. The painting’s current owner was, he said, “quite surprised and shocked”.

“We’ve got it from someone that bought it from someone else . . . We held the funds until we were satisfied with the provenance and in the end we couldn’t get full provenance on it, so we’re still just trying to deal with that. Since we’ve gone into lockdown, I haven’t been able to investigate it further . . . we don’t want to sell anything unless we’re 100 per cent certain,” Thomson said.

“It may very well be a McCahon. But get someone to categorically state in writing that it’s not, and then I guess the battle of the owner and them will begin. We don’t want that to happen, but there’s no certainty either way and when there’s no certainty either way, you give someone back their 87 grand.”

Gary Langsford, founding director of Gow Langsford Gallery, said establishing provenance or “the paper trail of ownership . . . tracing it right back” was the most important aspect of art collecting. In New Zealand, that often meant researching old exhibition lists, gallery catalogues and historic photographs of art shows and artists’ studios.

“If somebody is going to forge something, the first thing they’re going to do is forge the signature. The signature is not the most important thing – provenance is much more important.”

Langsford said the International Art Centre had done the right thing in putting the sale on hold.

“This is a little bit of a wake-up call, I think, for all the auction houses to do a little bit more due diligence on what comes in.”

Paintings by Colin McCahon are sought after by collectors. International Art Centre sold two others by the artist in the same July auction, and is preparing to put up a major work from his Titirangi series, with an estimated sales value of between $250,000-$300,000, at its 50th anniversary spring auction.

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