A Katoomba art gallery found itself at the centre of a “bizarre” court case in Penrith last Friday when a high-profile Sydney lawyer admitted stealing two paintings from the gallery — but gave evidence that he had no memory of the theft.
Penrith District Court heard that solicitor Michael Gerard Sullivan, 54, was pleading guilty to a charge of stealing two art works worth $14,500 from Katoomba Fine Art Gallery in December 2008.
Mr Sullivan, who has worked at prestigious law firms such as Freehills, Gadens and Mallesons, and for companies such as Oil Search and Lihir Gold, gave evidence he had absolutely no memory of stealing the paintings, despite being captured on CCTV doing exactly that.
Mr Sullivan’s lawyer, Tony Bellanto, QC, told Judge Jennifer English “this is a somewhat bizarre case” and went on to tender psychiatric reports which said Mr Sullivan had acted in a state of “dissociative amnesia” and was not responsible for his actions.
The court also heard that Mr Sullivan had suffered from depression for many years and that a conviction might leave him unable to practise as a lawyer.
The Crown prosecutor, James Gibson, told the sentencing hearing there was another “commonsense” explanation: Mr Sullivan knew exactly what had happened, had lied to the police and was not being truthful in court.
“The version he’s maintaining is one consistent with someone who is not accepting responsibility for what he has done,” said Mr Gibson.
The court heard that the saga started on December 26, 2008 when Mr Sullivan and his wife went to the gallery run by Geoff White. At that time it also had a restaurant.
Mr Sullivan asked questions about the works on display and was shown around the gallery. He returned for another visit that afternoon, along with his brother and booked dinner for the following evening.
According to an agreed statement of facts, it was during dinner that the theft took place. Mr Gibson said it appeared that Mr Sullivan was either unaware of the cameras which were not “completely obvious” or he decided “to take a calculated risk”.
At 8.52pm, Mr Sullivan was clearly captured going to a back room in the gallery and taking two paintings by well-known Leura artist, James Willebrant.
The statement said: “The accused stepped back and examined the two paintings and then picked up the paintings, opened up the French doors and placed the paintings on the verandah. A driveway ran down the building on that side. The accused then went back through the restaurant and exited the premises.”
On December 29, Mr White realised two Willebrant paintings, The Pommel Horse and Light Presentation, valued at $14,500, were missing. He looked at the CCTV and then called police.
After a lengthy investigation, police went to Mr Sullivan’s home in Killara where his wife allowed them inside. There on the wall were the two paintings.
Mr Sullivan, still unaware of the CCTV footage, then told police he had paid a $2000 deposit to a woman at the gallery and had taken two paintings home, intending to pay the balance by cheque. Mr Gibson put it to Mr Sullivan on Friday that he had concocted his version of events. He replied: “The version I handed to police represented my recollection at the time and still represents my recollection of events.”
Mr Sullivan conceded it was “irreconcilable” with the CCTV.
He will be sentenced in August.
The two paintings at the centre of the case will feature in a new exhibition of James Willebrant’s work at Katoomba Fine Art from June 16.