Artist buys Margaret Olley painting at car boot sale ... for $20

David Stein with a painting by renowned Australian artist Margaret Olley it has been discovered after being picked up for $20 at a car boot sale. It is being restored by David Stein in Alexandria 1st Nov 2017 Photo by Louise Kennerley smh
David Stein with a painting by renowned Australian artist Margaret Olley it has been discovered after being picked up for $20 at a car boot sale. It is being restored by David Stein in Alexandria 1st Nov 2017 Photo by Louise Kennerley smh
Artist Margaret Olley, pictured in her Paddington home

Photos Ben Rushton

Wednesday August 25 2010

smh news SPECIAL 0000

Artist Margaret Olley, pictured in her Paddington home Photos Ben Rushton Wednesday August 25 2010 smh news SPECIAL 0000

???The Lismore car boot market, known locally as "The Booty", is a treasure trove of the old, the rare and the downright oddball.

On a summer's morning in 2013, the booty didn't disappoint for local artist Stefanie Bassett. While flicking through a plastic sleeve of old sketches she paused on a striking little painting that caught her eye. A small signature in the far right corner read "Olley, 1947"

Bassett said she knew she had found something special.

"I was transfixed," she said.

"I felt sick with excitement like I had just unearthed an ancient treasure."

She remembers, the store owner's asking price was just $20.

"As I handed over a $20 note he piped up, 'You know someone said that it reminded them of a Margaret Olley painting ... if it turns out to be an Olley, you owe me a beer'," Bassett recalled.

The painting was last month identified as an early work from one of Australia's most significant still-life and interior painters, Margaret Olley, which could fetch thousands of dollars at auction.

But receiving the final tick of approval took years, and nearly didn't happen at all.

Ripped from its original stretcher, the artwork depicts a bouquet of calendulas in vibrant hues of orange, yellow and brown, splayed across a blue gingham tablecloth, rendered in luscious, heavy brush strokes.

Lismore is a special place for Olley's devotees. The celebrated artist was born in the town and was a great supporter of the local art gallery.

Bassett was already an admirer of Olley's work, but didn't have the means to authenticate the painting.

At the time she was living off the grid in a 1940s farm shack with no running hot water in bushland on the far north coast. She shared her small house with tree snakes, mud wasps, bush rats and sugars gliders, and was concerned the work would eventually become dinner for a local colony of ants.

Reaching out to art experts proved tricky, armed only with a mobile phone powered by "sunbeams". And when she did reach experts, they soon lost interest.

"Everyone seemed interested at first, but when I explained how the work came to be in my possession it was like dropping a hot rock - dead ends at every turn - so I gave up" she said.

In mid 2017 an old friend, art teacher Bek Golsby-Smith, came to visit Bassett, who showed her the artwork.

"Stef pulled out the painting and said 'do you know what that is'. I said 'it looks like a Margaret Olley'."

Golsby-Smith had seen Olley's work up close and agreed to take the painting to the "big smoke".

In Sydney, Golsby-Smith made many attempts to put the painting in front of the eyes of experts, and even considered ambushing former NSW Art Gallery director Edmund Capon - a friend of Olley's - who worked near her studios.

"I started dropping lines to people that I knew, trying to get people as excited about it as I was, but no one instinctively felt the same way about it that I did," she said.

At a dinner party a few months ago, Golsby-Smith put the painting in front of a friend - former google executive Christopher Mulcahy - for his thoughts. Mulcahy was stunned.

"I was walking out the door at the end of the dinner party, I was the last person to leave and Bek said 'hang on a second' and went over to her book shelf and started pulling out all these books," Mulcahy said.

"At the bottom of the pile was a folder and she pulled out this Margaret Olley painting. I said 'holy shit' and poured myself another glass of wine."

Mulcahy contacted The Herald which had recently published an article on a possible renaissance masterpiece discovered in a North Shore home. The Herald pointed him in the direction of one of Australia's most respected art conservationists, David Stein, who has worked with major auction houses to restore and authenticate art works.

Mulcahy sent Stein an email with an image of the work. Stein said he immediately identified it as an Olley.

"My reaction to the email was 'wow, that is fantastic, it really looks like an Olley, I'd really like to look at it in the flesh," Stein said.

"As soon as I looked at it, I could see the nature of the materials and the condition was all consistent with the period and the authorship."

The work is not considered one of Olley's major paintings, and would likely sell for between $8,000 - $10,000.

Bassett is still weighing up what to do with it.

"I often think if Margaret was alive today she'd probably roar with laughter and say 'well, look what the cat dragged in'."

Do you have your own art story? Contact the author: mario.christodoulou@fairfaxmedia.com.au

This story Artist buys Margaret Olley painting at car boot sale ... for $20 first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.