By JOHN ARMSTRONG AND PATRICK GOWER
Helen Clark says she is not the only politician to submit a fake painting at a charity art auction.
The Prime Minister was forced to apologise yesterday after it became known that she had passed off as her own a painting by someone else which sold for $1000 at auction.
To her "certain knowledge" she was far from the only MP who had assisted with a contribution of this kind. She refused to be specific or name individuals.
"Other politicians have contributed work not done by them. Over many years, people, staff and families have helped with such things."
Dunbar Sloane, an art auctioneer with 35 years' experience, said last night that he had never known a celebrity painting not to be genuine. He had conducted many charity auctions and sold works donated by Prime Ministers, which were usually simple works.
"You don't buy it as investment art but as a bit of fun or decoration."
Wellington lawyer Robert Lithgow said forgery carried a penalty of up to 10 years' jail.
Asked about the type of offences that could have been committed, Mr Lithgow said that besides forgery, they included uttering forged documents, using a document and conspiracy to defraud.
But in the unlikely event that she was charged, Helen Clark would certainly get off with a warning because there appeared to be no intent of personal gain. Another possibility was diversion, which could require her to paint an authentic replacement picture for the buyer.
The most a person would receive in such a situation was a warning.
National Party leader Bill English said the Prime Minister was smearing every other politician who had contributed to a charity to get away with what she had done.
Submitting the fake painting was "calculated dishonesty" as she had sought publicity and political benefit as Opposition leader from contributing to a charity auction.
However, he stopped short of saying she should resign her arts portfolio or calling for a police investigation.
Helen Clark said signing the painting had been an error of judgment she deeply regretted and for which she apologised.
She had been asked to do a painting to help Save Animals from Exploitation (Safe) in early 1999 when she was Leader of the Opposition. Instead, her office got a relative of a staff member to paint it.
Helen Clark, who is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, has written a personal cheque to reimburse the buyer, Auckland businessman Henry Van Dijk.
But she is refusing his demand that she paint him a replacement. She said she always learned from her mistakes "and will not be making this one again".
However, she partly blamed the pressure on politicians to be helpful.
Asked if she had misgivings when she signed the painting, she said she had only the barest recollection of the picture and remembered nothing of the events surrounding it.
Mr Van Dijk does not want to press charges - but he wants Helen Clark to pay him his $1000 as well as donate an extra $1000 to Safe.
The North Shore importer of water-purifiers said he bought the painting at the auction in the belief that it would increase in value if she became Prime Minister.
"If I was the King of Jordan or a Saudi prince, she would not have done this. But the little people like me and Safe just do not seem to matter to her."
The woman who painted the picture, Lauren Fouhy, a Paraparaumu Beach hobby artist, said she had no regrets "about helping out a charity in good faith".
She was asked to "paint a picture for charity" and knew Helen Clark had put her name on it.
"But I had been asked to do it from her office, so I knew there was a bit of skulduggery involved - I just didn't know how or why or what."
Safe director Anthony Terry said Helen Clark had been provided with a mounted canvas in the expectation that she would actually do the painting.
"We feel we have been misled. I can appreciate Helen's good intentions, but it was a foolish, regrettable mistake, the burden of which she has carried with her for the past three years."
By JOHN ARMSTRONG AND PATRICK GOWER