Closeup/Art

Exposing fakes as an art in itself

RON BASE April 4 1977
Closeup/Art

Exposing fakes as an art in itself

RON BASE April 4 1977

Exposing fakes as an art in itself

Nothing so spectacular as Tom Keating’s manic deception of the international art world has yet to emanate from Canada. Nonetheless, there is a steady trade in fakes of Canadian masters. Working from time to time with the police, but more often as a consultant to dealers and collectors, painter A. J. Casson, now 78, is an acknowledged expert on bogus Canadian paintings. He has one reservation about his work that Tom Keating would undoubtedly relish: Casson avoids ever having to authenticate a Krieghoff painting. “Some of the Krieghoff imitations around are just too good,” he says.

Typically, a recent visitor to Casson’s north Toronto house had some pictures he wanted Casson to examine. Casson, spry and flinty-eyed, led him into his comfortable, book-strewn living room. The pictures in question were landscape sketches by an artist the caller thought might be John William Beatty, a Toronto painter who died in 1941. Casson studied the sketches, then after a few minutes sighed, looked up and said: “I’m sorry, these weren’t done by Beatty. When Beatty ran an outdoor sketch class, a woman helped him who drew very much in his manner. These sketches were her work.”

For the past 14 years, Casson, one of the two surviving members of Canada’s celebrated Group of Seven, has taken on the role of sentinel for the group’s work— and the work of others—from fakers, forgers and amateur collectors with too much money and too little knowledge. “I do it for nothing because the Group of Seven was so good to me,” he says. “I feel I should give my time to protect their names. Quite frankly, I don’t give a damn about the people who want me to look at these things. It’s my old friends I’m concerned about.”

When, for example, someone brought him paintings of the Rocky Mountains, supposedly done by his old friend and early mentor Franklin Carmichael, Casson knew at a glance that they were fakes: Carmichael, he declared, was never west of Lake Superior in his life. On another occasion, Casson discovered with the help of the Ontario Provincial Police forensic laboratory that a purported Tom Thomson painting was phony because the white paint that had been used contained titanium oxide, which didn’t come into use until the 1930s. Thomson died in 1917.

In most cases Casson can spot a pastiche or copy of a masterpiece with remarkable ease. Says OPP Deputy Commissioner James Erksine, who once worked with Casson on a series of art frauds during 1963. “Cass has got an uncanny eye.”

Playing cops and robbers in the art world was the last thing Casson expected to be doing when ne joined the Group of Seven in 1926.(The original members in-

cluded Lawren Harris, J. E. H. MacDonald, Franz Johnston, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Franklin Carmichael and A. Y. Jackson. Three others joined later: Edwin Holgate, Le Moine FitzGerald and A. J. Casson. Only Holgate and Casson are still alive.)!n those days the group’s dramatic way of portraying the Canadian landscape was held up to ridicule by critics who called their work the product of deranged minds. Then an affluent and more appreciative postwar society discovered the merits of Canadian art and went on a buying spree. Almost immediately the forgers moved in. The OPP, charged with investigating the bulk of the art forgery cases, called on Casson to help them sep-

arate the real from the unreal. Casson suspects that at one time the country was littered with hundreds of forgeries. He personally spotted about 300 of them. As a result, Canadian fakes seldom turn up on the market these days. But Casson notes that since there are few Group of Seven originals for sale—most of them are safely lodged in art galleries—the climate exists for a whole new wave of forgeries. “Wherever there is money to be made,” he says, “someone is going to try it.” So he remains on call to the police as a special art investigator and adviser, and hangs onto the gold badge the OPP presented him with.

In the meantime, Casson tries to get on with his own work. Years ago he was known for his crisp, deliberate renderings of small-town Ontario. Now, he is trapped restlessly in his house with a broken wrist that has left him unable to paint. He therefore has time to speculate on what it would have been like had he decided to become a forger himself. “You know/’ he says, “I could go upstairs right now and paint a Carmichael that no one would know. I’ve got some old benchboard sketches that are 50 years old, the kind of stuff he once used. I could rub them off and paint over them and, by golly, no one would ever know.” RON BASE