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Friday, 24 August 1923

Dr EARLE PAGE (Cowper) (Treasurer) . (By leave.)- I move -

That the report of the Committee appointed by the Commonwealth Government to inquire into the value of the late Mrs. Ellis Rowan's collection of paintings be printed.

I am taking this course to give the House an opportunity of expressing its opinion upon the report, and upon the action that should be taken by the Government in connexion with the proposed purchase of the pictures.' In connexion with this proposal, the Premier of New South Wales, in February, 1921, introduced a deputation to Sir Joseph Cook, which urged that the Commonwealth should purr chase the pictures, the value of which was stated to be about £21,000. On the 27th July, 1922, the then Prime Minister said, " If the House approves of the purchase of the collection the Government will acquire it at a reasonable price." In the House of Representatives on the 12th October, 1922, Mr. Massy Greene, then Minister for Defence, moved -

That this House approve of the purchase, upon such terms as may be arranged, of the late Mrs. Ellis Rowan's collection of' paintings, depicting bird and flower life in Australia, Papua, and New Guinea.

Mr. MassyGreene explained that the original price asked for the whole collection was £21,000. He added -

The Government will endeavour to carry the negotiations through to a conclusion; but - if that be possible - it will not acquire them until Parliament has had an opportunity of deciding definitely upon the matter of the actual purchase price.

Greatly divergent views have been expressed as to the merits of the pictures from both the scientific and artistic point of view. An advisory committee consisting of Mr. G. F. Mann, director of the Sydney Art Gallery (chairman) ; Professor A. A. Lawson, Professor of Botany, Sydney University; Mr. John Longstaff, and Mr. Will Ashton was appointed by the Commonwealth Government to report on the collection. That committee said -

After a careful and detailed examination of the entire collection, the Committee is unanimous in its opinion that the collection would have great historical, artistic, educational, land scientific value if the drawings were suitably framed, glazed, and labelled, and placed in such a position as to be available to the public.

It recommended that the collection together with the copyrights pertaining thereto, be acquired for the nation. The. reasons for the recommendation were set out at length. In a supplementary report, made at the request of the Government, the Committee stated that they could not take the responsibility of recommending the purchase of the Australian and New Guinea works, numbering 952, for a sum exceeding £2,000. Efforts have been made over a long period to sell the collection. In 1918 Mr. G. D. Meudell applied for permission to form a company with a capital of £10,000 to deal with a collection of 328 pictures of New Guinea birds. Mrs. Rowan was to receive £2,500 from the company and 5,500 £1 shares. No business apparently resulted. Sir George Fuller, at a deputation, said Mrs. Rowan was prepared to take £6,000 in cash, and the remainder in the form of property in Papua worth another £6,000. In November, 1922, it was stated that Miss Ryan (the late Mrs. Rowan's sister) would accept £10,000 cash, or £5,000 in cash, and a pension of £500 per annum. The late Prime Minister stated in the House of Representatives on the 29th November, 1921-

I, however, am not going to offer Mrs. Rowan £2,000 for her life's work. If the House thinks that we should acquire these paintings, we should offer Mrs. Rowan a fair price for them. She has asked £20,000 for the collection. Whether that is fair or not, I am unable to say ; but an offer of £2,000 would obviously be absurd.

In January, 1-923, a business committee was formed for the purpose of reporting to the Government as to the value of the pictures. The Committee consisted of Alderman the Hon. William Brooks, M.L.C., nominated by Miss Sarah Hynes, representing Mrs. Rowan's executrix; Mr. James Kell, deputy governor, Commonwealth Bank; Mr. J. R. Collins, secretary to the Treasury. Messrs. Kell and Collins, representing the majority of the Committee, reported as follows : -

In letters written to the Commonwealth Government by various persons, reference has frequently been made to an American offer for the collection. We questioned Miss Hynes closely as to this, and learned that Mrs. Rowan had written to & friend in America describing her work, and saying the collection was worth at least £10,000. The friend replied that, when Mrs. Rowan had finished with the pictures, the friend would buy them. This was not a definite offer to buy, and we cannot regard the matter as in any way indicating the value nf the collection. The letter was not produced.

We have not been supplied by Miss Hynes with particulars of any other negotiation for thu sale of the pictures, though she said that Lord Novar, formerly Governor-General of Australia, had requested that' the pictures be sent to him in England for sale.

We have come to the conclusion that there is really no buyer for the collection as a whole.

We have carefully considered the terms of the first report furnished by the expert Committee appointed by the Government, and we note the superlative terms in which the expert committee recommended that the pictures be acquired by the Government. Its second report, in which it recommended that only ?2,000 be paid, is a little astonishing. We can only conclude that the expert committee assumed there was no market for the pictures, and fixed the price arbitrarily at a sum the taxpayer might fairly be asked to find. We have not thought it proper to question the expert committee oh the subject.

It being impossible, in our opinion, to fix a market value for the pictures, the question resolves itself into what the Government is willing to pay. In considering this aspect of the matter, we have been influenced by the fact that on several occasions the proposed purchase has been before the House of Representatives, and the Prime Minister has informed the House that the sum of ?2,000 was too low a price. On the last occasion the House approved of the purchase at a price to be agreed upon. Under the circumstances, it cannot be expected that the executrix will part with the pictures unless she is offered a considerable advance upon the sum fixed by the expert committee.

Seeing that the executrix is in such a strong position to bargain, we have thought an offer of ?5,000 would not be unreasonable. At the same time, we are firmly of the opinion that any sum above ?5,000 would be extravagant, and if the executrix refuses to sell at that price, the idea of the purchase should be abandoned.

Mr. Brooksmade this report:

Whilst agreeing with the general term's of the foregoing report, I entirely disagree with the conclusion as to the price which should be paid for the Ellis Rowan pictures, as contained in the final paragraph. The position appears to me to be as follows: -

The 950 paintings in question have been determined by an expert committee appointed by the Federal Government to be of great historical, artistic, educational, and scientific value, and worthy of securing as a national record.

The Federal Parliament, acting on this eulogistic report, has decided that the collection of paintings shall be purchased at a price to be arranged.

The committee of four experts who reported so favourably on the merits of the pictures in terms of highest praise, when asked to place a value on the whole collection, stated that they could not take the responsibility of recommending the purchase of the Australian and New Guinea works (numbering 952) for a sum exceeding ?2,000.

The executors of the late Mrs. Rowan ask the sum of ?10,000 for the collection.

In the Sydney Sun on the 17th January, 1923, the opinions of prominent artists were set forth. These were unanimously against the purchase of the pictures, and particularly against the payment of any such sum as ?10,000. As a guide to the action which the Government' should take, the following expressions of opinion appear to have much weight.

Mr. JulianAshton is reported to have said that the purchase by the Federal Government of 900 pictures by any one artist, even if the artist were a Valasquez, would be a grave error. This opinion is supported by Mr. W. Lister Lister, president of the Royal Arts Society. The Advisory Committee would not take the responsibility, of recommending the purchase for a sum exceeding ?2,000. This is a matter which the House has taken into its own hands. The Government feels that its responsibility is to lay all the facts before honorable members, who may come to a decision on the question. - If necessary, an amendment, fixing the price to be offered for the collection, may be submitted.

Mr Pratten - Can the Minister give the House a lead in the matter?

Dr EARLE PAGE - Unfortunately, I am in the position of having expressed myself in unequivocal terms when last; the question was before the House. I stated then that I regarded the proposal to purchase the collection as a grave error, especially in view of the fact that Mr. Julian Ashton had emphasized that the collection comprised 900 pictures by one artist, and that very great difficulty would be encountered in housing and displaying them in a way that would make them of immediate value to the public.

Mr Mann - Can the Minister say who will be the principal beneficiary in the. event of the purchase, now that the artist is dead?

Dr EARLE PAGE - A memorandum prepared for me by Mr. Cerutty, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, states - . . the wholesale purchase by the Government of the pictures under notice does not seem to be an attractive proposition, and, in any case, there is no reason why the Government should pay an exorbitant price which would now be of benefit only to the late Mrs. Rowan's relatives.

Mr Pratten - Has the Government a composite mind on this question?

Dr EARLE PAGE - The House, by deciding to purchase the collection on certain terms, has already taken this matter into its own hands.

Mr MARR (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - The House having already decided to purchase the collection, it is now only a question of the price.

Dr EARLE PAGE - The point is: the last Ministry promised that, if it were possible, they would submit to Parliament the terms upon which, in their opinion, the collection should be obtained.

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