Tribute work to New Zealand's most famous artist sold in London as original

Auction house sold painting by John Robinson that was advertised as a work by Colin McCahon, including a forged signature and false date

John Robinson’s tribute to artist Colin McCahon’s ‘Untitled’ painting sold in London as an original for NZ$13,000.
John Robinson’s tribute to artist Colin McCahon’s ‘Untitled’ painting sold in London as an original for NZ$13,000. Photograph: Cordys
John Robinson’s tribute to artist Colin McCahon’s ‘Untitled’ painting sold in London as an original for NZ$13,000. Photograph: Cordys
in Queenstown

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 21.21 EST

A painting created as a tribute to one of New Zealand’s most influential modern artists has been sold at a London auction house as an original, leaving the artist whose work it actually was “bewildered” as to how such a mistake could have been made.

John Robinson, who lives in Dunedin, painted the “Untitled” black and white oil on paper as a tribute to the late New Zealand artist, Colin McCahon.

McCahon is widely regarded as New Zealand’s foremost painter and his work is valuable and widely sought after.

The Tribute painting by Robinson sold at the Chiswick auction house in London for more than NZ$13,000 (£6,875). The artist said his signature had been sliced off the bottom of the painting, and McCahon’s signature forged, and an earlier date added.

When the painting was advertised at a New Zealand auction house in 2019 under Robinson’s name it was valued at NZ$2,000.

Dunedin artist John Robinson it's ‘bizarre'  that his tribute work was sold as an original
Dunedin artist John Robinson was ‘bewildered’ that his tribute work was sold as an original Photograph: Supplied/John Robinson

“It’s so bizarre, I have no idea how it ended up there [in London]. There’s no room for confusion that this was a true attempt at forgery,” said Robinson.

“(For) anyone who is familiar with my work, or McCahon’s work, there is no mistaking the two. I don’t know what to do, I’m a little bewildered. It’s twisted.”

The original title of the painting by Robinson titled “Variation on a theme by McCahon” and it was painted in 1987, after McMahon’s death.

“It was never intended to be a forgery in any way, but it echoes some of his landforms,” Robinson said.

“I was very familiar with his works. And when he died I did about six of these pictures as a tribute, and they were exhibited in Moray Gallery in Dunedin.

“It’s not a good feeling [to be associated with an alleged forgery].”

Comet (F13) by New Zealand artist Colin John McCahon, was stolen from a home in Sydney in 2017.
Comet (F13) by New Zealand artist Colin John McCahon, was stolen from a home in Sydney in 2017. Photograph: NSW police

McCahon, who died in 1987, is widely seen as New Zealand’s most influential modernist artist. His painting Canoe Tainui broke the record for New Zealand’s most expensive artwork in 2017, selling for NZ$1.35m.

Other McCahon pieces have sold for NZ$270,000 (Woman with Lamp), NZ$265,000 (Gate) and NZ$117,500 (Now is the Hour we Must Say Goodbye).

New Zealand art historian and chair of NZ Art Crime Research Trust, Penelope Jackson, said it was apparent to her that the purchaser likely did “no research” before acquiring the tribute piece as an original.

“Robinson is also a victim here – he has been transparent about his tribute works and someone else has tampered with them including cutting a section off,” she said.

Robinson said the Chiswick auction house “wasn’t to know” the piece wasn’t genuine, and it wasn’t common practice for auction houses to engage in research to authenticate their sales.

“I think they took it at face value and took it from there,” says Robinson.

Chiswick Auction house has not responded to requests for comment, but local media have reported that the auction house has refunded the buyer for their purchase and intends to send the painting back to New Zealand.

Jackson says this is not the first time someone has tried to sell a McCahon that was not real.

“A few forgers over time have thought McCahon is a good artist to forge given how valuable his works are and supposedly they look relatively easy to paint,” said Jackson.

“They are not. The reality is quite the opposite.”

Robinson said he currently had no plans to go to the police, but the ordeal has left a sour taste in his mouth.

“The big question for me is, what happens to the painting now?,” says Jackson.

“The last thing you want is for a piece like this to go back into circulation and eventually onto the open market again.”