By Marion Ives, ABC News, 11 April 2016
The disappearance of a valuable artefact that belonged to one of Australia’s most prominent artists, Tom Roberts, is now before the Australian Federal Police.
Donated to the Prime Minister’s office for inclusion in a public collection, the coin was allegedly handed to a prime ministerial adviser at the official opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) major retrospective exhibition on December 2.
Malcolm Turnbull was the guest of honour at the function, attended by about 700 guests.
“I wanted to champion the PM in his vision for a more intelligent, creative nation and to promote the philanthropy that he models personally and promotes in the community,” said Dr Lisa Roberts, great-granddaughter of the Australian Impressionist artist.
That first sale of an artwork is immensely important to an artist who is trying to make a career out of being an artist, so this is a really important part of history.David Hulme, independent art consultant
At the event, Dr Roberts met Bruce Parncutt, a former president of the National Gallery of Victoria’s council of trustees.
Dr Roberts said she entrusted Mr Parncutt with the artefact, enclosed in an envelope addressed to Malcolm Turnbull.
He is alleged to have passed it to Michael Napthali, who is the adviser on arts, communications and intellectual property, to the Prime Minister.
“I was advised by the NGA to hand the gift to Michael Napthali on the night,” Dr Roberts said.
It was not until February 22 that Ms Roberts was told second hand that the artefact had disappeared.
“I was neither officially thanked for the gesture, nor was I officially told that it had gone missing,” Dr Roberts said.
“I was quite devastated and confused. I had actually felt that I had formed relationships with these people and I felt betrayed.
Coin handed down for generations
Minted in 1873 and engraved with the letter T, the coin and a handwritten note saying “1st artist money TR” were handed down through the Roberts family for generations.
“It’s been passed down to the members of the family who were artists or who studied to be artists, so it was an encouragement of the arts within our family,” Dr Roberts said.
She said the exact story behind the coin remains a mystery, but it is believed her great-grandfather kept it as a symbol of a significant payment for an artwork.
“The financial difficulties were great and continue to be great for artists in Australia, so the coin meant a great deal in terms of acknowledging his success in being able to sustain himself,” she said.
David Hulme, an independent art consultant, said he believed the artefact would best belong in a major art institution, but would also be of value to private collectors, if its story could be authenticated.
“That first sale of an artwork is immensely important to an artist who is trying to make a career out of being an artist, so this is a really important part of history,” he said.
The ABC tried repeatedly to contact Michael Napthali and Bruce Parncutt, but neither has responded.
The Prime Minister’s Office told the ABC it was aware of the situation.