How do you know when a work of art – a work that could fetch thousands or millions of dollars – is authentic? This question is asked every time an old master is “discovered” – is it a fake? a fake ? — and this is also a question asked about Canadian paintings. When art historian Jon S. Dellandrea came into possession of artist William Firth MacGregor’s final effects, he unlocked a now-forgotten scandal, which he chronicles in his new book “The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven & Tom Thomson”. Counterfeits. In the excerpt below, Elizabeth Kilbourn, the Star’s art critic at the time, stands up at a public art auction and questions the authenticity of the Group of Seven paintings being sold. , even as eager buyers raise their pallets to bid.
In the early 1960s, several art collectors from across Canada had contacted J. Russell Harper, curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada, informing him of their intention to send supposed works of Tom Thomson, Cornelius Krieghoff and other Canadian notables. artists to the National Gallery for authentication and inspection. The National Gallery team had identified many of them as fakes. But it wasn’t an occasional fake – rather it was a flood of counterfeits, a new and disturbing phenomenon. Harper was already doing preliminary detective work on the baffling presence of counterfeit Canadian paints that appeared on the Canadian market during 1961 and 1962. And he was not the only figurehead in Canadian cultural circles to spot the trend of counterfeit works to infiltrate. in the Canadian art market.
Robert Fulford, the famous cultural journalist and writer, who later wrote a column on books and the arts in the Toronto Star, published an article in Maclean’s in December 1962. In a scathing column, Fulford recounted a recent rowdy evening at Ward-Price Auctions presided over by Ben Ward-Price, the owner and auctioneer. “[He] had shot about 50 paintings, at prices ranging from $65 to $325. There were about 250 people there and they were bidding with enthusiasm,” Fulford wrote. “Ward-Price was auctioning off a set of fifteen oil sketches, purported to be by JEH MacDonald, a distinguished member of the Group of Seven, when he was interrupted by a woman in the audience.”
Elizabeth Kilbourn, art critic for the Toronto’s Daily Starstood up in the crowd shouting at Ward-Price, “Where are these pictures from?
“What does that have to do with anything?” Ward-Price disputed, to which Kilbourn replied that she questioned the authenticity of the paintings.
It was a shocking moment: a well-respected member of the national media publicly accused a reputable auction house and its owner – in front of a live audience and during the auction – of selling counterfeit art. A minute later, Sheila Mackenzie, an art collector in the crowd, escalated the tension.
“They’re not from JEH MacDonald, and you know it!” she bellowed.
In the ensuing hubbub, Ben Ward-Price demanded that Mackenzie give her name, but she refused. An auction house assistant asked him to leave the auction room; which she also refused.
In an attempt to placate, reassure or persuade his audience of buyers, Ward-Price explained his selling policy. “An auctioneer’s job is to sell what is sent to him,” he said. The auction house did not guarantee the authenticity of the photos sold. They might be by JEH MacDonald, or maybe not. “That’s how we intend to continue,” Ward-Price concluded, then in a thump at his accusers in the crowd, he added, “despite some… communists, perhaps?”
The public booed him for this breach of morals, Fulford observed, but soon bidding resumed. Minutes later, an oil painting advertised as an Emily Carr sold for $1,200. Later that evening, paintings attributed to Franklin Carmichael, Tom Thomson, AY Jackson, Frederick Simpson Coburn, Maurice Cullen and many other artists were auctioned off at equally great prices.
As Ward-Price later explained to Fulford, it was just business. “I’m not saying they’re genuine, and I’m not saying they’re not. I just sold them. We have previews, and people can see them before they buy. If they think they are not genuine, they don’t bid on them. Fulford insisted: Did Ward-Price obtain authentication of the photos before selling them? No, replied Ward-Price. He took them as they were offered, by the people who gave them to him at auction.
The showdown at the auction house on November 15, 1962 and Fulford’s subsequent column brought the national media into the fray and exposed to public scrutiny a situation that had quietly worried artists, collectors and curators these last years. Hundreds of fake paintings, attributed to Canadian artists, hung in galleries, museums, salons and conference rooms across Canada. It was the flood that J. Russell Harper had described. “These paintings sell for prices ranging from around $50 to $2,000. They are fakes in the literal sense of the word – not fake attributions but images painted by someone, somewhere, as (usually bad) forgeries of Canadian artists,” Fulford wrote.
Elizabeth Kilbourn, the Toronto’s Daily Star art critic who had challenged Ward-Price in the middle of his 1962 auction, wrote an article in December 1962 titled “Fake Paintings Attack the Nature of Art Itself”. She offered this startling revelation: “I’ve had many artists tell me they’ve been approached to paint fake G7 or Krieghoff paints and one to paint an 18 x 20 Thomson sketch.” Unfortunately, Kilbourn did not share with her readers the identity of the artists who shared this with her or the person or people who approached the artists in the first place. (I spoke with Kilbourn about it in 2021. At ninety-five and “full of beans,” as she describes herself, she was ready to tell me the name of an artist who had been approached, but she made me promise not to quote her. I wish I could quote her, because the artist she named was quite famous.)
Although Fulford’s and Kilbourn’s articles put art fraud on the public mind, it was not surprising, in some respects, that forgeries were making their way into the Canadian art market. By the early 1960s, Canadian art — especially the works of members of the Group of Seven — was beginning to attract higher sales prices in galleries and at auction. Canadian art was maturing, its value was increasing, and so was this new criminal enterprise.
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