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Case study 6: R v. O'Loughlin

In 2001 John O’Loughlin was the first Australian to be convicted and sentenced for Aboriginal art fraud in Australia. He was charged under the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) with several counts of obtaining a benefit by deception. The matter went to a committal hearing where O’Loughlin pleaded guilty.

John O’Loughlin had passed off certain paintings as being by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, a well-known Western Desert dot painter. Now deceased, Mr Tjapaltarri is renowned for establishing the Western Desert art movement. At a gallery viewing in 1999, he announced that several paintings attributed to him were in fact not his. Those who had bought these paintings included the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Often disputes about authenticity turn on intellectual property, trade practices or contract law rather than criminal law. Civil proceedings are usually commenced as they permit an artist to bring the action themselves, the onus of proof is not as high (unlike criminal law) and damages can be awarded. The case of R v. O’Loughlin is unusual in being a criminal proceeding that was brought by the State against a perpetrator of art fraud.

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