The ground floor of the National Gallery of Victoria is bustling with hundreds of people queuing for tickets to the latest blockbuster exhibition, many of them completely unaware that three floors up, hangs one of the most famous paintings in the world.

Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra sits in the NGV all year round. It was painted around 1743–44 in Venice. Two-and-a-half-metres wide and framed in timber and gold leaf, the painting shows Cleopatra, dripping with jewels, about to drop a pearl earring into a champagne glass of vinegar; the most expensive cocktail in history.

“It’s our most famous painting,” says Ted Gott, senior curator of international art at NGV. “It’s one of the most famous paintings in the world. There are so many stories to tease out of it.”

Gott, as part of a collaboration between NGV and The Wheeler Centre, is talking to a group of us about the painting. Over the coming weeks, there will be two more talks delving into the strange history of the piece. Today’s stretches from the life of Cleopatra – a tale of assassination, opulence, intrigue and incest in the first century BCE – to 18th century Italy when Tiepolo created the work.

Accounts differ as to how it ended up in Melbourne, but Gott’s version is the most interesting. In 1932, the painting belonged to the Hermitage Palace in St Petersburg in the then USSR. Stalin hocked it for cash trying to sell it to the National Gallery in London, but they were wary that doing business with the Soviets would cause a scandal. So they deliberately undervalued the painting to make it look like it wasn’t worth it and, in the confusion, the NGV swooped in and acquired it.

They must have been stunned at their luck. “Absolutely,” says Gott. “No one could understand what the hell was going on.”

There are slightly less than 80,000 works in the NGV’s permanent collection, dating from the second millennium BCE to the year 2018 AD. The collection includes European paintings from the 18th century, an extensive indigenous art collection, ceramics, engravings, films, chairs, Picasso, Warhol, Emin and Gabori, just to name a few. At any given time, between 2500 and 3000 artworks are on show while the rest are tucked away in storage. Each piece tells a story, and when shuffled, re-ordered and re-curated, the whole story of art can be told in a thousand different ways.

“We look at how we can complete the story,” says Gott. “We work out what’s underrepresented. For example, in painting, we’ve never had any German Expressionism until two years ago, when we bought Erich Heckel’s Great dancing pair (Grosses tanzpaar) with support from donors John and Rose Downer.”

The NGV’s courses – which over the next few months will unpack the work of prominent female modernist artist Clarice Beckett and the architecture of Melbourne’s historic Cliveden mansion – provide a good entry point for casual gallery-goers. The museum also provides free tours of the collection almost every day of the year.

Gott’s own department covers European, British and American art from 1300 to 1980. They’ve just spent seven figures on the gallery’s first Salvador Dali painting, Trilogy of the desert: Mirage. “It’s something we’ve wanted for at least the 17 years I’ve worked here,” he says. “And of course Dali impacted strongly on Australian art.”

Gott thinks that having an international collection of art makes the museum more relevant to Melbourne’s own melting pot of cultural influences. “We’ve been a country of immigrants since the beginning, and our collections from nations all over the world reflect that,” he says. “We represent the heritage of all Australians, no matter where they come from.”

Amid the constantly changing landscape of the city and the turnover of temporary exhibitions downstairs, there are constants to be found here. I tell Gott about a friend of mine who regularly makes time to visit American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Red). Once again, Gott says that removing Rothko would hurt “the story” of art history the NGV is trying to create. “Picasso’s Weeping Woman is also always up,” he says. “People love to see these. They’re part of people’s lives.”

Of course, given the gallery shows only 4 per cent of the collection at once, a huge amount is hidden away. A handful of sensitive works rarely see the light of day. Works on paper can be shown for three to five months before being hidden for three to five years to make sure exposure to light doesn’t damage them. “We have to balance the fragility of the artwork and try to preserve it for the next 500 years,” says Gott.

Now, the gallery is on the verge of one of its thrice-yearly reshuffles, giving the public a chance to see a selection of works we might not have seen before. Gott pointedly won’t tell me what’s going up. “We don’t advertise the changeovers,” he says. “We’re putting up some new things. We’re freshening up. Telling different stories. You’ll see your favourite work and find a few surprises.”

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