When Pamela Liberto told Australian auction houses that her late father had bequeathed her five paintings by a celebrated Aboriginal artist, auctioneers took her word for it and sold four of the pictures for more than A$300,000 (£130,000).
But the stark landscapes were not by Rover Thomas, a former stockman and internationally acclaimed artist who died in 1998. They were forged by Mrs Liberto, 65, and her 67-year-old husband, Ivan, at their Melbourne home, with the help of art catalogues, a digital camera and brown paint.
The couple were jailed for nine months yesterday by a judge who said their actions were "almost the stuff of crime stories and the silver screen". Roland Williams, sitting at Victoria County Court, said the fraud was "a deeply premeditated and highly planned operation over a considerable time".
The case has raised questions about the care taken by sale rooms to check the provenance of Aboriginal art before putting it up for auction. Adrian Newstead, an indigenous art specialist at the auctioneer Lawson Menzies, told Melbourne's The Age newspaper yesterday that Thomas's work was notoriously difficult to authenticate.
Lawson Menzies sold the most lucrative of the Liberto forgeries, a painting called Wolf Creek Crater, to a Swiss gallery in 2005 for A$146,400 (£64,000). Sotheby's and Christie's also sold fake Thomases.
The court heard that Mrs Liberto claimed her father acquired the paintings from Thomas, with whom he supposedly worked on a project at a former diamond mine in Kimberley, Western Australia. Judge Williams said he could not believe that was enough to convince the auctioneers that the pictures were genuine, adding that it seemed "absurd" to rely on such information.
Thomas, who lived at Turkey Creek in Kimberley, began painting in the 1970s and became one of the nation's most successful artists, with his works coveted by collectors all over the world. One painting, All That Big Rain Coming From Top Side, was bought by the National Gallery of Australia for A$778,000 (£340,500) in 2001 – a record for Aboriginal art which was broken only this year, when a painting by the late Emily Kngwarreye sold for more than A$1m (£440,000) at auction.
Judge Williams told the Libertos, who had denied fraud: "You did all this for your lifestyle. You quietly aspire, it seems, to the good things in life."Reuse content