Death by a thousand cuts, says former gallery owner

FORMER director of Australian Art Resources and Axia Modern Art, Vic Stafford, has broken his silence for the first time since going into liquidation owing $1.5 million, admitting the liquidation "was like death by a thousand cuts".

FORMER director of Australian Art Resources and Axia Modern Art, Vic Stafford, has broken his silence for the first time since going into liquidation owing $1.5 million, admitting the liquidation "was like death by a thousand cuts".

Mr Stafford, 79, said he and his son Matt, 48, who ran AAR which owned the Axia brand, were "the biggest losers" and now had "no debt and no assets". "Over 40 years we sold $90 million in art and there's nothing, nothing left," he said.

Mr Stafford was responding to reports that AAR had deprived a number of artists of their commissions.

This week The Age reported that sculptor Greg Johns only recently discovered he was owed a $49,500 commission for a $126,000 work, To The Centre, sold in 2008.

Mr Stafford said he sold two properties in Middle Park, one worth $1.5 million and the other for $500,000, to help save AAR, which, he estimates, was worth $2 million three years ago. He now lives on his superannuation in Gippsland on a property owned by his second wife, Beverly.

He said Matt, the director of new company Art Resources International "a one-man operation with no office" was returning next week after working in Italy.

Mr Stafford defended the business' handling of the sale of To The Centre, saying Greg Johns had the option of not joining the list of AAR creditors. Instead, he claims: "Matt had offered to find new clients to cover the money [so] Johns has lost money unnecessarily by going on the register". Mr Johns disputes this, telling The Saturday Age "Matt, then a friend, offered to pay me $2500 a month and I agreed until he refused to put it in writing".

Mr Stafford insists son Matt "made Greg Johns a superstar" and talks similarly about his son's role in public artist Bruce Armstrong's success.

"Matt put Armstrong on the map. As the consultant, he received $50,000 and did all the negotiating with the Eagle at Docklands," Mr Stafford said.

"Armstrong was paid $800,000 and yet he's in the paper quibbling about a $5000 sculpture he says turned up at auction that we didn't sell."

Mr Armstrong left Axia five years ago, but artist Ken Johnson, who was with Axia for 30 years said he was "gutted" by his treatment. Owed $54,775, he said he thought he and Mr Stafford were friends, "but you don't treat friends like that".

While Mr Stafford said he paid four or five artists monthly payments "so they wouldn't have to work", Mr Johnson said "payments were sporadic and off-set against sales. If I really pushed the buttons they'd pay, but they feed you crumbs."

Last Wednesday, Axia liquidators approved the purchase of the brand name to former Axia manager Liam Ferguson, who is operating online gallery Axia Modern Art. His 12-artist base includes Jane Valentine owed $61,807 and Stephen Glassborrow owed $36,766. "They are artists working in good faith with me at a reduced 30 per cent commission - to underwrite their debts," Mr Ferguson said. "There is money owing, it's not pretty, but I've taken it on knowing I can establish good relationships with former Axia artists again and continue the legacy."