New Perth Book: The Gallerist




The first novel by Perth surgeon and art lover Michael Levitt recently hit the shelves. The Gallerist (Fremantle Press) is a thriller, set in Perth, delving

into the world of art, dealers, and buyers. Michael chats to The Starfish:


Why did you decide to write this novel?

I  love to write. I’ve always loved writing and the three non-fiction -health – books I’ve written reflect the strong appeal writing has for me. Creating a work of fiction was a sort of challenge to myself, to see if I could concoct an interesting story and relate that story in an appealing way.

Was it an enjoyable process?

It was more demanding, time-consuming, educational – and much more enjoyable than I could have imagined. The end result of this process has been an even greater appetite to write, and again submit myself to the illuminating -though sometimes confronting – process of having my manuscript dissected in fine detail then, hopefully, refined to the point of publication.

Your main character, Mark Lewis, is a former surgeon with an art gallery. You’re a surgeon who collects art – what else do you two have in common?

Writing fiction is actually quite scary. While writing of this story, I was anxious that the characters in the book might start to behave inconsistently, so I chose to base them on people I know. In the case of Mark Lewis, I based his personality on my own, so I could be confident his decisions and reactions throughout the book would remain constant and coherent.

I am still a surgeon and still very much in full-time medical practice; and I do love art. But I’d make a lousy small business operator and have no desire to own or operate an art gallery – it wouldn’t survive a year!

How much does being a surgeon impact the way you write?

I don’t think I’ve ever been an especially obsessive surgeon. There is undoubted merit in following ‘the rules’ and in adhering to tried and trusted surgical techniques – the last thing any of us would want is a ‘creative’ surgeon! But the countless variations in how human tissues behave under the countless different conditions to which disease exposes them means that surgeons are forever having to adjust and adapt as they go.

In that respect, my style of writing fiction has some similarities with the story evolving as chapters were added, and with Mark Lewis and other characters responding page by page according to changing circumstances in their search for the origins of Charlie’s painting.

As well as being a crime mystery, your book is something of a celebration of the WA art scene and those who helped shape it. Did you start out with that intent, or did it just evolve that way?

All along, I wanted to celebrate art and reflect the way  art both moves and captivates me. But the critical thing was always the story.  I felt that the success of the book would depend on how readers responded to the story, not references to the artworks.

In some respects, there is a parallel between the human truths that lay beneath the observable events of my story, and the way  the impact of a particular work on the viewer can transcend the mere physical appearance of the art.

Do you think enough West Australians adequately recognise the importance of our modern artists ?

I believe that the arts – visual, performing and others – play an important role in any humane society. Paintings, in particular, are accessible and ubiquitous; almost every family home has some kind of artwork on its walls, be that an embroidery, a poster, a print or an original. At a deep level, I think most Western Australians do enjoy paintings and appreciate, sometimes sub-consciously, the benefit of art in their lives.

That most Western Australians could not name a major Western Australian artist is, in my opinion, altogether less important than that they choose to hang a painting or a print on the walls of their homes or offices. What I would really like, though, is for readers of my book to be prompted to find out more about even just one of the artists named in the book. And that this might expand their existing interest – or trigger a previously dormant interest – in art. Perhaps they might derive benefit and enjoyment from gaining a deeper knowledge of art, the artists behind the works and the stories that connected them.

For a city this size, do you think we punch above our weight in terms of quality artists?

There is no shortage of amazing talent among WA artists. Being based here, however, makes it harder for them to be recognised on a national stage. I can think of numerous local artists, present and past, whose works are without peer across the country, yet remain more or less unknown in the Eastern States.

I think local artists are more often underrated rather than the reverse. But local artists tend to be resilient and press on with their creative endeavours regardless, seemingly resigned to the indifference of the national audience. In that light, recognition and support from Western Australian art buyers and collectors is all the more important to them.

In your years as an art lover, did you ever stumble across much art fraud or any dodgy characters?

There is reference in The Gallerist to art fraud, which is very much on the public record. As for my own experience, I once bought a painting that I could not later assure myself was what it purported to be, and successfully returned it to the seller. That experience also informed a small sub-plot within The Gallerist.

The problems I have encountered more often have been on account of inflated prices and the difficulty I have faced in establishing what is a ‘fair price’ for an artwork. I wouldn’t describe these dealers as ‘dodgy’, but neither would I describe them as completely trustworthy. In this regard, many collectors come to rely upon a very small contingent of trusted gallerists and art dealers for assurance about both the authenticity and the price of the works they are acquiring.

One especially disappointing acquisition of mine was of a major work by a significant Sydney-based artist, already deceased at the time of the purchase. The price was very reasonable, I thought, but the explanation for that became clear when it arrived in Perth – there was an area of serious damage to the painting to which some reparation had already been attempted. In my opinion, the damage was significant; the seller was surprised that I thought so but did offer to have it sent back.

I had the painting assessed by a local art restorer and decided that it was better to keep it, repair it and enjoy it for what is was. But I never bought another work from that gallery. As in so many aspects of life, in the world of art collecting, trust is all-important.


Author Michael Levitt


In your Acknowledgements, you refer to local art identities Patricia and Ian Flanagan of GFL Fine Art. Did you have them in mind when dreaming up the characters Helen and Pat O’Beirne, (both well-regarded art authorities) in your book?

Anyone who knows Pat and Ian will immediately recognise them in the book’s characters (named Helen and Pat, respectively, in the novel). Their influence on my collection, on my understanding and appreciation of art and, through that influence, on most of my adult life has been significant.

Including the O’Beirnes in The Gallerist was an important part of me providing credibility to the notion of a surgeon-cum-collector choosing to become a gallerist – the knowledge gap between me as a collector and the Flanagans as dealers cannot be underestimated. Basing the characters of the O’Beirnes on people I knew helped me ensure that their actions were consistent and coherent throughout the book, much as I based Mark Lewis on myself.

But Pat and Ian’s inclusion was also an intentional acknowledgement on my part of their support and friendship over many years, and the faith I have developed in their judgement and advice.

We noticed in the latest GFL catalogue that you and your wife Carolyn are about to sell some of your works; what prompted this move?

Wisely or not, I have invested in art and, at some point, all investments need to be realised. Carolyn and I have a very large collection and, although we are selling some major works, the walls of our house remain generously covered in lovely works of art that hold significance to us. It was Pat and Ian’s advice that now was a good time to sell and, as I am edging closer to retirement, it was especially hard to contest their advice.

Is it a great wrench to let go of these artworks?

Yes. A number of the works have had to be stored out of our sight for a long time now on account of our nation’s infamous super fund regulations. But a few that we are selling have been part of our home for decades; they have been the hardest to let go.

Is there a work of art you own, which you will never sell?

We have a few works descended by inheritance – kidnapped from our parents’ collections to be honest – which we would not ever want to sell. Mine is a painting of boys fishing painted by a little-known South Australian artist; Carolyn has a pair of beautiful works on paper by acclaimed local artist Mary Moore that we appropriated from her parents under the guise of having them reframed.

Our mothers have acknowledged and approved of the thefts.

In writing The Gallerist, you went to the trouble of commissioning Perth artist Teelah George to paint some pieces for you so you could better describe the abstract works you write about. At what point did you decide to do this?  Could you have written about Charlie’s art as well without having done this?

The basic idea for the story came first. But, within a page of starting, I found I needed a painting to describe. As the story developed in my mind, I realised I would want a series of notional paintings by the same artist. And to describe them, I would need to see them. Without doubt, I couldn’t have described the paintings without having them in front of me; and I couldn’t have credibly described them in the book as ‘masterpieces of Australian art’ if they hadn’t been works of such genuinely high quality.

To ‘steal’ images off the internet was technically possible, since I would be under no obligation to self-report that offence, but it would still be a bad thing to do.

So I approached Teelah, who I knew, having previously purchased a painting from her. She was generous and gracious in agreeing to meet the brief I gave her. My decision to approach Teelah turned out to be a stroke of genius.

Did you consider putting a piece by her on the cover of the book so we could all see it?!

I did. But, amongst many of the wonderful pieces of advice that I received from my publisher, Georgia Richter, was to allow the reader as much space as possible to use their own imaginations. If the images had been included, some readers might have seen the works differently to my own descriptions and might have found that disengaging to some extent. One day, I will (with Teelah’s approval) have her nine works described in The Galleristdisplayed as a small exhibition of sorts and people who’ve read the book can decide for themselves if they like them as much as I do, and if my descriptions align with their opinions.

What other research did you undergo to lend authenticity to your novel?

Many of the art references were from my own experiences and understanding, but I checked with Pat and Ian wherever I felt I might be ‘skating on thin ice’. Carolyn and I drove out to Bendigo and went to the wonderful art gallery there to inform descriptions of Mark and Linda’s visit to the gallery. Coincidentally, on that day there was a display of works from the 1980s hanging in the gallery, which I took as a good omen about this part of the narrative.

The one area that required some more determined research surrounded the Disability Centre and the Sir James Mitchell School. My memories from growing up and living in Coolbinia-Yokine were flawed and I was fortunate to be assisted in clarifying the history of the school and the centre by a current senior staff member.

Without giving away too much, the book’s ending may surprise some; with the main character, Mark, behaving graciously toward the person who’d caused him harm. Would you be as noble as your main character if you’d been in Mark’s shoes?

One of the mini-themes embedded in the story is the reality that most people behave ethically most of the time, that unethical conduct is the default behaviour of a tiny minority. To me, a clear and wide distinction between ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys’ is more commonly written about than is experienced in real life.

As a result, my story bears a strong undercurrent of gentleness and forgiveness, and this is reflected in the story’s ending. Mark’s behaviour resembles how I would have tried to resolve the dilemma confronting the lead characters.



The Gallerist, by Michael Levitt (Fremantle Press), is out now.