Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

QVMAG’s collections audit progresses

Renoir’s ‘The Artist’s Son, Jean, Drawing’. Curators at the museum confirmed the image was a reproduction after they magnified it and saw pixels. Supplied: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Emily Baker, ‘Renoir’ recovered in museum audit turned out to have pixels, ABC News, 31 Oct 2019

Staff working in a government building in Launceston thought they struck gold when they found what they believed could be artwork by Pierre-Auguste Renoir on the office walls.

Key points:

  • A Tasmanian museum has been auditing the state’s public buildings for items from its collection after realising it had misplaced a Brett Whiteley artwork
  • During the search, museum staff checked reproductions from Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Francois Bouchet to make sure they were not originals
  • The search continues for the missing Whiteley, which was acquired by the museum several decades ago

The painting was uncovered during a sweep of government offices for exhibits loaned by the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) in decades past.

Museum employees were on the hunt for a missing brush-and-ink piece by renowned Australian artist Brett Whiteley, Waves V, worth up to $30,000.

Poor record-keeping of the whereabouts of the Launceston museum’s 200,000-piece collection has caused headaches since it became apparent in late 2017 that the artwork by Whiteley — a two-time Archibald Prize winner — was missing, after a mainland researcher asked to access the piece for a retrospective.

After announcing the piece had been “misplaced” last year, Launceston’s council-run museum declared it would conduct an audit to get on top of its sprawling collection.

Brett Whiteley. The Launceston museum has been combing the state’s public buildings for loaned artwork after it realised it was missing a piece by Australian artist Brett Whiteley. Supplied: Transmission Films.

The ABC understands the reproduction Renoir — The Artist’s Son, Jean, Drawing — was among seven works recovered for the museum’s collection in May.

It was being housed in the State Government’s Public Building, home to senior Cabinet ministers, including Treasurer Peter Gutwein.

The print was examined by two curators who magnified it and saw it had pixels, confirming what the museum’s records showed: it was a reproduction.

Staff also retrieved work by Travis Smith, Geoff Tyson and a reproduction from 18th-century French painter Francois Boucher, as well as pieces from two unknown artists.

Whiteley work still missing

An email sent by a QVMAG staff member in August — released to the ABC under right-to-information laws — revealed museum employees also planned to audit Launceston’s Town Hall, Mount Pleasant Laboratories and various National Trust and Hobart City Council buildings.

“I contacted [redacted] … from the Department of Premier and Cabinet to ask if they have any records of QVMAG loaning works to hang in buildings for the State Government,” the staff member said.

“He got back to me and said there was no record of us ever loaning works, however we know that we did loan works to them in the past … so it looks like there wasn’t any paperwork associated with these loans, or if there was paperwork it wasn’t kept on file.”

In a statement sent to the ABC this week, Launceston City Council general manager Michael Stretton said Waves V was yet to be found.

“However, with the vast amount of objects to consider, there is still a long way to go,” Mr Stretton said.

Mr Stretton said 500 objects had already been audited during the ongoing search of the museum’s collection.

The council has stressed it was lending artworks to other agencies.

“The temporary exhibitions gallery located on the ground floor of the Art Gallery has been repurposed as the audit space, in which our curators, officers and volunteers are meticulously documenting the collection in full view of the public,” Mr Stretton said.

“We encourage the community to come along and watch us at work.”

Information previously released under right-to-information laws revealed staff frustrations with long-running issues of understaffing, under-resourcing and inadequate cataloguing.

One community member had suggested to QVMAG employees that taking artworks was seen as a “perk” of volunteering at the museum in past decades.


Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2022
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