LIFE was good for Andrew Pridham in late 2007. Known as a "rainmaker" at JP Morgan, where he was the chairman of investment banking, Mr Pridham had long been one of Australian banking's pre-eminent deal makers.
The shopping centre tycoon Frank Lowy was among his clients and he had a seat on the board of his beloved Sydney Swans. The champagne was flowing after Mr Pridham and others helped the retail trust Centro Properties secure a US shopping centre company for $US3.7 billion, earning tens of millions of dollars in fees for his firm.
The global financial crisis was yet to bite and Mr Pridham was enjoying life and harbour views at his $6 million Mosman home in Sydney, with its tennis court and indoor pool.
In November 2007, the banker turned to the well-known auctioneer and Melbourne art adviser Anita Archer to help him buy some serious art. In return for a commission, Ms Archer was to identify works that would make a good investment. She soon told Mr Pridham she could get him a painting referred to as Lavender Bay, 1988, signed and dated "Brett Whiteley 1988". It was a sweeping vista of the harbour, apparently from the artist's home at North Sydney.
Only months before, a Whiteley painting of the Olgas sold at auction for $3.48 million, a record for the artist, so the Lavender Bay painting looked good at $2.5 million.
Mr Pridham took delivery of the painting in December and paid Ms Archer $300,000. But he became suspicious of its provenance and hired experts to investigate its authenticity.
That same month Centro hovered on the brink of collapse, with its executives revealing that Centro could not refinance debts of nearly $4 billion.
The disputed artwork is part of a much wider story that includes three allegedly fake Whiteley paintings circulating in the market. Some of the biggest names in the Australian art world, including two auction houses, several art dealers and a number of wealthy businessmen, have become embroiled in disputes about the paintings.
Now Mr Pridham is suing Ms Archer for selling him an "artwork that was not by the artist Brett Whiteley", and for allegedly failing to exercise all the "reasonable care, diligence and skill" required to verify and advise him on the painting's provenance, according to his statement of claim to the NSW Supreme Court.
Mr Pridham wants his $2.5 million back, plus money to cover the loss of the capital appreciation of the work, and what he spent insuring the painting and getting experts to check its authenticity.
Mr Pridham alleges that Ms Archer bought the painting from the controversial Melbourne art dealer and horse racing enthusiast Peter Gant for $2.2 million. Mr Gant declared himself bankrupt last June, with debts of at least $3.57 million.
His creditors include artists Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson, who took Mr Gant to court in 2008 over three fake drawings attributed to them and traded by the art dealer. The court ordered they be destroyed.
Mr Gant has also been connected to the two other suspect Whiteleys: Lavender Bay Through the Window, which he gave to a well-known Melbourne restaurateur as security for money owed, and Orange Lavender Bay, sold to the Sydney car dealer Steven Nasteski for $1.1 million by the Melbourne art dealer John Playfoot, who got it from Mr Gant.