He was one of Australia's leading art dealers, raking in millions of dollars each year and enjoying a lavish lifestyle of luxury cars and celebrity lunches.
But in Parramatta District Court on Thursday, Ronald Coles admitted to multi-million-dollar fraud perpetuated over more than five years – and he is now facing jail.
In a firm voice, the 65-year-old pleaded guilty to 15 counts of fraud and deception as a director, and to larceny as a bailee, committed over the past 10 years.
Coles admitted to a further 18 instances of fraud and deception, which will be taken into account when he is sentenced next month.
Coles sold numerous paintings stored at his Kenthurst gallery without the permission of their owners. He also created multiple owners for the same works, selling paintings to investors without divulging details about the numerous other owners.
The works included paintings by some of the country's most celebrated artists, including Brett Whitely, Albert Namatjira, Norman Lindsay and Arthur Boyd.
Among his victims were individual art owners and superannuation funds. The total amount stolen runs into the millions.
The 15 counts to which Coles has pleaded guilty are significantly less than the 77 charges he faced when arrested last year.
At the peak of his career in the mid-1990s, Coles had an annual turnover of $20 million.
He promised customers an opportunity to boost their life savings by investing in art, which he would buy, exhibit and sell on their behalf using their superannuation savings.
In October 2009, The Sun-Herald tracked him down to a central coast hideaway. "Why do you think I'm living like this in a small flat doing night-time taxi work?" he asked. "I'm also a victim in all this."
The court heard that Coles was suffering from an "as yet undiagnosed medical condition", for which he would soon be seeing a neurologist and a heart specialist.
He was allowed to remain on bail until sentencing next month to allow these appointments to take place.
"I acknowledge that he is facing a custodial sentence, your honour," Coles' barrister, Greg Hoare, said.
"I only ask that he remain on bail so that those medical appointments take place."
As he rushed from the court, Coles refused to comment when asked what he had to say to the victims of his deception.
with Eamon Duff