James Mollison, acting director of the National Gallery of Australia, was the only person who knew about the gallery when it was still in its planning stages 45 years ago. In 1973, Mollison’s former boss Max Hutchinson, wrote him from New York to tell him that Jackson Pollock’s Blue poles were for sale. Ben Heller, a New York real estate mogul, sold the painting for US$1.9m (then A$1.3m). The Australian government, as the buyer, paid A$100,000.
The highest price ever paid for an American artwork at the time was $1,500,000. Mollison, his supporters, and the NGA claimed that Australia would be on the map of international art if it owned this abstract expressionist work. The NGA also said that its collection of Australian artwork was almost complete. This could be seen as the moment Australia moved its cultural cringe to the US.
Recently, I asked Heller (now 92 years old) why he sold the painting to Australia. He told me, “There is never a simple response.” Max Hutchinson, who was working for Blue Poles, approached me out of nowhere. I knew where Pollock and other major artists were. It was different and appealing to Jackson [who died in 1956] for his daring side…
Heller says that the purchase was a “mark of Australia joining Western Culture.”
Read more: Here’s looking at: Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock
An added attraction was that the purchasers were willing to leave the painting on Heller’s apartment wall in New York until the NGA was built (the building was officially opened in October 1982.) This later proved impossible for insurance reasons.
The fact that Heller’s price was doubled in negotiations with Australians may have also been a factor.
The monetary value of Blue Poles is said to have increased over the last 45 years. Recently, it was reported that the insurance value was A$350,000,000. The value of the painting is often used to justify the purchase, even if its aesthetics are offensive and the provenance of the artwork has been questioned.
A postage stamp depicting Pollock at work. Shutterstock
In 1974, at the National Gallery of Art of Washington, a gathering was convened to determine if Tony Smith and Barnett Newman helped Pollock squeeze paint onto Blue poles. Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, and Bryan Robertson, the gallerist who gave both Pollock and Krasner major London shows, were present. NGA’s website explains it this way: “The examination revealed any marks made by others on the canvas that were not Pollock played no part in the painting which became Blue poles.”
James Paterson, a Victorian Liberal Senator in 2016, suggested that Blue Poles should be sold if it was worth A$350,000,000 to lower the national debt. Many, including Mathias Cormann of his party, immediately slammed the idea. Called it a “national treasure”.
As an accountant pointed out recently, the insurance value of a piece of art can be different than the price that it could reach on the market. Insurance premiums and security can be markedly increased by increasing the insurance value.
Read more: Here’s looking at Mike Parr’s Jackson Pollock the Female
Interestingly, as early as 1977, Mollison told Art News: “I’m sick of it [Blue poles]. It’s not the sort of painting I ordinarily respond to on a personal level anyway. That isn’t what a museum director’s job is necessarily about.”
He thought when the NGA opened in 1982: “We’ll downplay it.” It’s only one painting, a picture by an ordinary person, that sparked our interest when we purchased it.
In 2015, Gerard Vaughan was the director of NGA at the time. He said Blue Poles is one of the best abstract expressionist paintings ever made in America and that it had been a great purchase.
He said, “It is the best investment that this country has ever made.”
If it weren’t for the likely inflated price Australia spent on one of the scores of Jackson Pollock drip paintings, the exhibition might not have been as popular as it is today.
Heller laughed when I asked him what he thought about the current price of the painting that he had sold 45 years earlier for US$ 1.9 million. “It’s too expensive to talk about!”