THINK MELBOURNE, 1993. Sydneysider Stephen Scheding, on an autumn holiday with his wife, has an hour or so to kill while she attends a meeting. Some 18 months before, the psychologist/art historian had reached a personal watershed. After 25 years of art collecting, predominantly the works of lesser-known Australian artists at astutely-bargained prices, he had put his entire 100-painting art collection up for sale. A self-diagnosed "incurable art auction addict", he'd determined to go cold-turkey, to concentrate his energies on his family, his work, other projects ...
Now, inevitably it seems, he finds himself at Joel's art auction in Malvern Town Hall. Cruising the pre-sale viewing, he's quite pleased with himself - he can look at the hundreds of paintings without being overpowered by the urge to own one. The physician, he thinks, has healed himself. Then he spies Lot 692.
Of modest dimensions and unsigned, the painting is almost lost in the crush of neighbouring Aboriginal dot painting, 19th century portrait and modern cubist cityscape. But not quite. Something about it calls to Scheding. He stops abruptly, looks again. And is swept with exhilaration. Early Lloyd Rees, he breathes.
Cut to Sydney, late February 1998. Prevailing winds have attracted a regularity of low-flying planes, jarring the serenity of Scheding's inner-city terrace courtyard. Towards the back fence, a large palm appears to be making its escape, the paving around its trunk peeled back for root-resuscitation. A DIY cubby perches on the side wall. "That was a painting that cost us money," he says enigmatically, nodding at the playhouse. "A cardinal sin, buying sight unseen from the UK. But at least the packing case it came in had some value."
The yard and Scheding share an amiable lived-in look: his short-cropped hair and beard meld into a vertical halo that accentuates both his rimless glasses and boyish animation. There's animation too in his conversation, a verbal gavotte in which galloping enthusiasm is irregularly reined in by academic gravitas.
He's telling me how the small unsigned painting he spotted in Joel's (he bought it, of course, for $300 odd) became a two-year, life-consuming quest. And how that quest then transformed itself over three years into a book, A Small Unsigned Painting. Just published, it is the diary of a diligent, exhaustive investigation to find the artist.
It could be subtitled Two Years in Provenance. Every possible clue is examined for meaning, for ramification, for leads. From frame to paint sample to rusted nails and masking tape, from auction sticker to picture wire to ... well, you get the picture. A whodunit with no eye-witnesses, the trail some 70 years cold and Scheding as trench-coated PI. Painting Investigator.
It's an arcane world but someone has to trawl it. And trawl it he did: via fax, phone, letter, libarary microfiche, interviews, by chasing up will readings, scientific tests, by casing possible "crime" sites, by pursuing false leads, eliminating red herrings, stretching tenuous links. Night after night, he would climb the narrow cast-iron circular stairs to his attic eyrie to pore over documents and files, write letters, imagine possibilities. The chase dominated his life, the conjecture and the conundrum. It was all he talked about, he says, detailing each episode to friends and family; even strangers with the most casual links became enthused.
Fortunately, he says, his wife, the director Sophia Turkewicz, "is very tolerant" and supportive (tactfully, perhaps, the book is dedicated to her). "She and I both enjoy 'story' in our different fields and we work a lot together. We get off on narrative." (Her credits include the acclaimed movie Silver City and the first series of the equally-acclaimed Bananas in Pajamas. When she was in New Zealand for an eight-month shoot last year, Scheding was there too, on set as son Sam-minder and as resident tutor to the young actors.) "Still," he adds half-defensively, "it could have been worse - I could be addicted to something much more harmful ..."
As with all detective cases, he uncovered secrets and oddities. An enigmatic signature revealed by X-ray, a mysterious love affair, a body with a bullet in the head (was it suicide or murder?), evidence of financial skullduggery and subterfuge. His investigation spread into exploring the psychology, life and habits of Lloyd Rees and his contemporaries in the 20s and 30s, with a side tour into the trenches of Galipolli.
And as with all gumshoes, his trail led inevitably to the morgue and the police station. He wasn't at the former to ID a corpse, however, but to recruit X-ray vision of the painting. And it wasn't a "book 'em" scenario at the station but an investigative analysis of handwriting samples.
"I DON'T KNOW WHY this painting attracted me so much, or why it kept me going," Scheding tells me as he shows me around his gallery of "eclectic leftovers" and artistic oddities. "When I first saw it at auction, I thought it might hold enough intrigue to use as a base for an article on how one goes about authenticating an unsigned work." With that in mind, he wrote to Joel's and other art auctioneers to ask about their authentication methods and approach. For a mystery to become consuming, it needs a spark to fire infatuation. Scheding's sudden intuition that a number scrawled on the painting's frame might be a phone number fueled his fixation.
"The whole undertaking suddenly became full of magical interconnections and intersections," he says. "There were elements of moving beyond what was on the canvas into purely mythical, symbolic magical realist areas. I don't believe in that stuff at all yet it was happening ..." He shakes his head in mild bemusement.
Magic realism is not the usual beat of a District Guidance Officer supervising an inner-city counselling team, a veteran of working with both disturbed and highly gifted schoolchildren. A graduate with double majors in English and psychology, Scheding in fact wears several hats, energetically. He's a resident counsellor at Sydney's selective Fort Street High, is known in the art world for his expertise on early Australian art, is consulted by researchers and art historians, writes as an occasional critic and commentator, has been in a long-standing partnership buying and selling artworks ("I'm terrific at buying, lousy at selling") and during his five-year Reesian odyessy also wrote and illustrated three children's books.
He first came to art when he was at university. Obsessed at the time by ambitions of being a cartoonist (he has drawn for major newspapers and magazines), he was hired as a casual researcher by a gallery on the basis of no credentials. "Sometimes there comes a moment in your life when someone has a belief in you or offers something totally outside the range of your experience. And something clicks - I became fascinated by art and art research, particularly that of early colonial painters."
Sense dictated later that he earn his income via his educational qualifications, sensibility that he pursue his art leanings as a dedicated part-timer. In a way, his book is the perfect synthesis of all his areas of expertise.
"More than anything, I hope it gets across the excitement and process of research, how one goes about it and the thoughts one has along the way, the serendipities ... I'm actually pretty disillusioned with a lot of art writing today. Too often, you can read articles on art and not make any sense of them whatever. I wanted my book to be an exercise in clear writing, and about the actual painting - not the theory but the object."
The object in this case, he agrees readily, is actually quite unprepossessing. "Even if it were signed by Rees, we'd be talking $5-10,000 tops. But that was one of the delightful things about the project - to make something out of nothing is a creative act. It wasn't so much the painting that ensnared me as the world around it. The book's as much about the coming of modernism to Sydney, and about the characters who lived in our artistic society then."
In the end, he says, the whole quest developed a universal resonance. "Of the who am I?, why am I here?, who did this painting? kind?," I ask. "That's right," he laughs, "the three essential questions of mankind."
It's elementary, then, to deduce that his "obsession" remains ... "Absolutely! In fact 'Obsession' was the book's working title. But because everything flows from the painting, in the end I thought it should feature. I like the quiet mystery of the title. But obsession? Guilty, I'm afraid."
He gives an 'aw shucks' shrug, then raises his hands with a what-can-I-do air. "I really love unusual images, and not always for the reasons the artist intended. And I really love puzzles - it's one of my ways of getting to understand art, of getting inside it by having to solve these things.
"I like the moment of the creation, of imagining what was going on at the time of the painting, of what was in the artist's head. Such exercises are entirely subjective, but it is possible to get close to the truth. And in finding these things out, you can also find out a lot more about your self.
"What I've learnt is that if you keep digging for treasure, you're bound to strike something of interest. Or perhaps that's it's possible to create something from nothing. The book is not just about a quest to find who created the painting but a documentation of my own creative act ..."
* A Small Unsigned Painting by Stephen Scheding is published by Vintage, rrp $19.95.