In early 1983 artist Billy Apple agreed to produce an apple out of pure gold for Ray Smith, then director of the Auckland Coin and Bullion Exchange and later chairman of the ill-fated Goldcorp.

As a new exhibition at Artspace relates, Smith did not fare well from the boom-and-bust culture of the 1980s but The Golden Apple remains and has some interesting tales to tell.

When the Herald visited Apple, he was preparing for the Artspace exhibition. In front of him was a scale diagram of the gallery and he incessantly foraged among the piles of clippings, receipts, notes, drawings and other archival hoardings gathered on every available surface in his dining room.


Apple has made a career of his obsessive nature. His works are executed in meticulous detail, often laid out in proportions based on the golden ratio. In the late 1970s, while based in New York, his visits to New Zealand often involved critiquing, redesigning and even cleaning galleries.

"I've always enjoyed things like that," Apple remarks. "I don't think those things are probably significant to the people who look at them or own them but I just feel very good about things like that working well. It's tight. You just know the concept will withstand scrutiny."

When the contract to produce The Golden Apple was originally signed, Apple went straight from Smith's offices at the top of Parnell Rise to the nearest fruit shop to select an apple for casting.

Apple chuckles: "I think I went through every apple and got her to bring boxes out. The place was awash with apples on the floor until I found one I thought was about as good as we'll ever get it. About half an hour later we walked out of there with one apple in a brown paper bag, a poor shop owner looking like, 'My god, my shop's wrecked, probably bruised every apple, and I got 25 cents. Thanks very much'."

Smith found a buyer and arranged the production of the apple. Six months later, on Monday, September 5, Apple was back from New York for the launch at the Bullion Exchange. Beautifully cast from 103.559 ounces of pure gold and sold for $85,000, The Golden Apple was the most expensive art work by a living New Zealand artist at the time.

For Apple, whose work frequently questions the conditions under which art is made and transacted, gold was a particularly poignant material to work with and this was a dream project for him. Where the value of an art work fluctuates according to market speculation, the raw material of this piece had its own fluctuating index that gave it inherent value. You certainly wouldn't get as much if you reduced a Hammond or Hotere painting to its raw materials of canvas and pigment.

What is most interesting about the work is the contract Apple signed. It stated that Apple would receive a fee of $7500 for The Golden Apple but also that a further 19 initialled and numbered apples could be produced, for which he would receive $1000 each. None of these have been made. In addition, the owner could produce as many unsigned apples as he liked.

As well as raising questions over the authorship and ownership of art, this opened the way for some creative dealing on Smith's part, of which Apple remained unaware until Smith published his 1994 book Where is the Gold? My Story.

Two of Smith's Christchurch clients, who had made more than $500,000 in two months trading silver futures, approached Smith about making five solid gold apples for them to take to Hong Kong.

As Smith states in his book, New Zealand still had exchange control regulations, which restricted the export of gold. He adds: "As works of art, the apples would be a permitted export. They would then melt them down and sell the gold, effectively moving $400,000 out of the country.

"I pointed out to them they would be required to repatriate the funds and as that didn't seem to worry them, I suspected they declared the value much lower.

"We did no finishing work on the apples of course as they were destined for the melting pot." It is unknown whether any further apples were produced by Smith but Apple doesn't feel he was exploited by this arrangement.

"I think to the point right up to and including the show, it was a magical moment," he says.

Apple was happy at being able to execute a dream project but he adds: "I suspect art was used as a convenient conduit for this matter."

The claims in Smith's book provide a narrative for the exhibition at Artspace, which has been developed in collaboration with writer and curator Wystan Curnow, who has been working with Apple since the mid-70s.

Written across Artspace's light fixtures are the opening statements from Smith's book, in which he boasts of the expensive cars and other assets he owned in 1987, all of which were confiscated or worthless a year later.

This section of the show is The Tale of Ray, which adds a new chapter to Apple's Tales of Gold works that have been created with Curnow and have referenced legendary figures like King Midas or Atlanta. "The Tales of Gold are so far mostly historical and concerned with mythology, so The Tale of Ray strikes a contemporary note in the series," Curnow states.

Says Apple: "I quite like the idea that it's in lights and it's above our heads. It's not skywriting or anything like that but it's pretty heady stuff, when you think about it to have what this man had in 1987, and probably a lot more things, too."

Like Smith, Apple had a penchant for expensive cars and that was how they first met. Apple, who then owned a Porsche, was friendly with car dealer, Jonathan Gooderham, who later took over Artis Gallery. Frequently at Gooderham's Takapuna home for weekend dinner parties, Apple inevitably made the acquaintance of Smith, who shared an interest in motor sports and lived just a few houses away in his beachfront mansion.

Apple is still an avid motor racing fan and collector of performance vehicles, and last year proposed his own event for Auckland, before the plans for the V8 Supercar Motor Race were announced.

Apple plans to circle the Lorne St-Kitchener St art district during the next Auckland Festival AK05. "I would doubt whether you would ever get permission to run a motor race around that same circuit if it wasn't keyed into the Auckland Festival and it wasn't an artwork," he says.

"I'm not inviting other friends of mine to bring their Grand Prix cars, it's just my collection. These are my instruments and the six of them will make six distinctly different sounds. So, it's a high-speed sound performance in a cultural environment, which the art circuit is."

Next year Apple also plans to launch his own variety of apple. As far as Pop Art goes, it will be the ultimate multiple. The project is his most ambitious and a hybrid of art, commerce and horticulture.

Declares Apple: "In 1984 we took the supermarket into the art gallery, now we're taking the art gallery into the supermarket."

A collaboration between Apple, Saatchi & Saatchi and HortResearch, it's a project that Apple considers is only possible in New Zealand's condensed society, a key reason he now resides in Auckland. Like The Golden Apple and the Art Circuit, he doubts these opportunities could arise in a country like America.

Another clause in Apple's contract with Smith restricts Apple from producing any further similar objects from precious metals. Apple is not concerned: "This real apple is a supermarket item that will produce an awful lot of gold," he chuckles. "I won't have to make a golden apple again."

* Numbers game

Opening alongside Billy Apple's Tales of Gold at Artspace this week is 35k, a show which also takes its title from Smith's book Where is the Gold? My Story and examines the discussion of art in terms of value.

"It is a comment about this Top 40 thing," says Artspace director Tobias Berger.

"At the moment, it seems like there is more press about art investment, Index Group and Black Caps [than art] and that's a bit boring for a lot of people. [Index Group's] Adam Parore works on the idea of the top 40 art prices, which are the top 40 auction results off the auction houses of contemporary art, which certainly change, but he doesn't say that anywhere.

"All the works in 35k have been nominated by various Auckland dealer galleries and are valued at $35,000, although one piece interprets that requirement in a unique way.

"I just got a piece in by an artist [Neil Palmer]. He brought this piece in for the 35K show and it's a small painting for $230 but he calculated it down and said that in the year 2016 it will be worth $35,000, according to Adam Parore's research."