He's one of the world's most famous artists, but no Australian public gallery has ever owned a piece of art by Salvador Dali – until now. Almost.

The National Gallery of Victoria has put a $4 million downpayment on a rare painting by the mustachioed surrealist, which had been hidden away in private collections since the mid-1960s.

NGV director Tony Ellwood, left, and senior curator international art Ted Gott, with the Dali painting.

Photo: Joe Armao

And, despite a recent bump in income from private donors, government funding bodies and exhibition ticket sales from record visitor numbers, the gallery is asking Victorians to reach into their own pockets to make up the $1.5 million shortfall owed to the private seller.

"It's not that we have to ask the public to help us," said NGV senior curator international art Ted Gott, who curated the gallerys 2009 Dali retrospective, Liquid Desire.

"[But] it gives the public a sense of ownership. Our collection is not for ourselves – the NGV collection is for the public and belongs to the public."


Mr Gott said the NGV had been wanting a Dali “for ages” but was waiting for the right one to come on the market. Trilogy of the desert: Mirage, from 1946 and worth roughly $5.5 million, spoke both to the NGVs collection and to defining moments in Dalis career and broader art history, he said.

Painted in the US, where the Spanish artist was living after he fled Paris from German occupation in 1940, it depicts a woman plucking a flower from a bust of the Apollo Belvedere.

Salvador Dali's Trilogy of the desert: Mirage.

Photo: Joe Armao

“The spirits of Ancient Greece and Classical and Renaissance art are rescuing American civilisation from the threat of what Dali felt was the laziness of abstract art emerging in America at the time,” Mr Gott said.

NGV director Tony Ellwood said the painting, commissioned by William Lightfoot Schultz of Shulton Cosmetics (famous for its Old Spice cologne) to sell a new perfume called Desert Flower, was "a defining acquisition for the Gallery and for Australia".

Mr Gott called it "one of the long-lost Dalis".

"Its like the world is getting a brand new Dali".

A still from the Disney film Destino showing Dali in 1946, around the time he painted the NGV's objet desire.

Photo: Viscopy 2009

The painting was shown in New York when it was unveiled in 1946 and then "from time to time in the '50s and '60s Mr Schultz would send it to a department store to advertise the perfume".

"The last time that happened was the mid-'60s – then it was back to the living room where it stayed with the family until 2006," Mr Gott said.

The NGV hopes their new Dali will become a "destination" painting, on a par with Picasso's Weeping Woman already in the collection.

"We hope it will be a famous Dali [in future] by virtue of being the only Dali painting in the Australian public collection," Mr Gott said.

“I think we will very quickly get a loan request for this picture [from other institutions].”

Visitors to NGV International can view the painting on display in the gallery foyer, where they can donate to its acquisition via PayWave. Donations can also be made online at ngv.gov.au.

Once acquired, the painting's home will be on the second floor of the gallery's free exhibition area, alongside other surrealist works including from Australians Russell Drysdale and James Gleeson, who were influenced by Dali.

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Hannah Francis

Hannah Francis is Arts Editor at The Age.

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