Australia's Most Notorious Art Acquisition

In 1973, former prime minister Gough Whitlam approved the purchase of an abstract piece of art for $1.3 million, Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’ (1952).

Australia’s most controversial art acquisition, which set an Australian and American world record at the time, sparked a fierce political debate about political extravagance and the value of abstract art.

Blue Poles (1952) has been described as one of American Artist Jackson Pollock’s career-defining pieces, and perhaps the zenith of his whole career. Pollock helped develop abstract expressionism in post-war New York. He shunned traditional brushes and dribbled, flung or dripped his paint onto the canvas (he is often referred to as Jack the Dripper).

Former owner of the painting, American art collector Ben Heller (now 91) bought Blue Poles in 1957 for $32,000 from his friend artist Pollock, and was shocked at the controversy stirred from the purchase.

The astonishing purchase split public opinion and caused outrage at the time, due to the radical, experimental nature of the artwork and was arguably a factor in the scandalous demise of the Whitlam Government; Whitlam was sensationally dismissed from his duties as prime minister of Australia by the Governor-General in November 1975 (something that has never happened before or since), two years after the extravagant purchase.


Former prime minister Gough Whitlam and Director of the Australian National Gallery James Mollison in front of Blue Poles in 1973.

However, the Australian government’s decision to buy Blue Poles is now viewed as the “wisest, cultural investment ever made”. The Director of the National Gallery of Australia Gerard Vaughan says the painting has a certain “notoriety” because of the price paid and the fact that it drove the Whitlam government out at the time. He goes on to defend the purchase as “probably the best investment the government has ever made in Australia”.

The painting, which usually sits in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra as one of its most prized pieces (now worth upwards of $100 million), is currently exhibiting in London at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Despite it's dubious history, the economic and cultural benefits provided to Australia by this acquisition are surely priceless. However, this then begs the question; how do you put a price on the true value of art?

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