Fraud case involving a Les Graham painting

Fraud case involving a Les Graham painting

Right: Les with Det. Sgt Matt Nicholls with the painting.

A painting by well known Kempsey Artist Les Graham was recently involved in a Sydney fraud case. The painting was entered in the prestigious Parramatta Annual Art Prize in 2012 by the President of the Parramatta Art Society, Dennis Sultana, who had removed Les’s signature and replaced it with his own. It went on to win first prize of $2000.00.

Two observant exhibitors, Joe Hallam and Tam Cao considered Sultana was incapable of producing a painting of such a high standard and lodged a protest. Before the painting was hastily removed from the show, Mr. Cao managed to take a photo with his phone camera and put the image onto the internet.

Katoomba artist John Wilson who had been mentored by Les early in his career immediately recognized the painting as a Les Graham original and sent a copy of the image by email to Les and asked him if he recognized it. Les said he remembered painting the picture many years earlier near Sofala.

At the insistance of Tam Cao, Les was contacted by the Vice President of the Parramatta Art society and confirmed that he was the author of the painting and gave details about it. However the Art Society Committee supported Sultana and refused to accept that Les Graham painted it. Protests by Hallam and Cao were met with threats of legal action if they pursued their accusations.

Les Graham suggested the Art Committee contact several art experts including his agent Kevin Hill who were all familiar with his paintings to quickly settle the authenticity. This suggestion was ignored. Les then offered to travel to Sydney to formally identify the painting himself, but this offer was also ignored.

Without informing Les, a few members of the Art Committee held their own meeting on the night of the 29th November 2012 where they “authenticated” the painting themselves. Les received an email telling him that they had decided it was painted by Sultana.Les immediately questioned their authority or expertise in coming to such a risible decision without himself or any qualified representatives with knowledge of his work being present.

He informed them that he and his wife Lorraine had searched their records and found a photograph of the subject proving Les painted the picture and also the documentation proving the provenance of the painting. The Art Committee had no choice but to accept Les Graham’s earlier offer to authenticate the painting. He did this in the company of an expert on his work, John Wilson. The Committee would only allow Les one expert accompany him. After a lengthy presentation by Les and John, explaining Les’s technique, palette and style, they still refused to accept their authentication and the accompanying overwhelming evidence.

When it appeared the Committee was going to go ahead with their support for Sultana, Hallam and Cao reported their claims to the Parramatta Fraud Department. Initial investigations led the matter to be passed on to Detective Sergeant Matt Nicholls of the Fraud Squad. The matter then went to court.

Under questioning, Sultana claimed he copied the painting at a Kevin Best Workshop some years earlier. Artist Kevin Best had recently died but his daughter Linda Gregor testified in a statement to Police that Sultana couldn’t have copied the painting citing several reasons why this was not possible.

After initially pleading his innocence, on the 1st November Sultana formally changed his plea to Guilty and was sentenced for Dishonestly Obtain Financial Advantage by Deception. He received a Good Behavior Bond of 18 months, Section 10.

Les, John Wilson, Tam Cao or Joe Hallam have never received an apology from any member of the Parramatta Art Committee.