Dame Edna's prop tricks Sotheby's

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A PAINTING attributed to the late Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan, which was due to be sold at Sotheby's this week, has been withdrawn after it turned out to be a prop from a show put on by the comedian Barry Humphries 30 years ago.

The picture, entitled Siege at Glenrowan (1955), appears in Sotheby's June catalogue, and was expected to fetch between pounds 8,000 and pounds 12,000 in an auction on Wednesday. It depicts Ned Kelly, the legendary 19th-century Australian outlaw, riding away into the desert on a horse.

The catalogue claims that "this is a later version of a work painted in 1955". In fact, the picture was painted by Max Robinson, a graphic designer, who knocked it out within 24 hours, after Mr Humphries asked him to provide "a Ned Kelly with a horse's bum", for a show at the Fortune Theatre in London in 1969.

This is the third time that Mr Robinson's version has turned up in auction sales as a genuine Nolan. The pastiche first fooled reputable auctioneers when it appeared in a sale at Sotheby's in London in 1990, but it was returned to its owners when it failed - authenticity unquestioned - to reach its reserve price. Then in 1993 it was pulled from a Christie's sale in Melbourne at the last minute.

When Jane Clark, director of paintings at Sotheby's Australia and a noted expert on Nolan paintings, informed Mr Robinson about what had happened again he was astonished. "My picture had been nailed to a frame, and had two holes bored into it," he said. "I've never seen a Nolan or any good painting looking like that. I couldn't believe anybody would have thought it was genuine. I'm staggered." No one in London doubted the authenticity of Siege at Glenrowan until Ms Clark noticed the picture while flicking through the latest London catalogue. "The size was very odd - at 5ft by 4ft the canvas was much larger than the usual Nolan," she said. "And the N was not as Sid signed his Ns, too glaring and round. And the picture was a bit wooden, a bit flat."

Mr Robinson clearly recalls the commission. "Barry Humphries gave me an exact reference for it," he said. The Nolan picture that Humphries - best known today as Dame Edna Everage - meant was probably the Glenrowan Siege, which is now in the Orica collection in Melbourne, but at the time of the commission was privately owned in London.

"Barry said, just chop off the top and bottom, so I got [my version] to a landscape shape, and made it much, much bigger so that it could be seen by the audience. It was meant to be a parody, but in the end I was so late with it, I did a straight copy. I painted it in 10 hours and delivered it to the Fortune Theatre."

The show was only a moderate success, and the theatre failed to pay Mr Robinson his pounds 15 fee for his contribution. What happened to the picture after the show is a mystery. The present vendor, who chooses to remain anonymous, claims to have bought it - as a genuine Nolan - from the Fortune Theatre in 1978.

Mr Robinson would like it back. "I think it's unfair that people are having bites at selling it. They've got a bit of a cheek. We've had a solicitor write a letter to Sotheby's in London. It would be really good to stop them returning it to the vendor and then have an argument about who it belongs to," he said.