Canadian art’s biggest mystery: where do all those fakes come from?

ROBERT FULFORD December 15 1962

Canadian art’s biggest mystery: where do all those fakes come from?

ROBERT FULFORD December 15 1962

Canadian art’s biggest mystery: where do all those fakes come from?




AT THE WARD-PRICE GALLERIES in Toronto, the largest art auction house in Canada, a major sale of Canadian and foreign pictures had been in progress for an hour and a half. The proprietor and auctioneer, Ben WardPrice. had knocked down about fifty paintings, at prices ranging from $65 to $325. There were about 250 people there, and they w'ere bidding with enthusiasm. The sale ot Nov. 15 was going well.

Ward-Price was auctioning a series of fifteen oil sketches, said to be by J. E. H. MacDonald, a distinguished member of the Group of Seven, when he was interrupted by a woman in the audience. Elizabeth Kilbourn. the Toronto Star art critic, rose to her feet to a^k: “Where do these pictures come from?” WardPrice asked, in return, what that had to do with anything. Mrs. Kilbourn replied that it had to do with their authenticity. This was the first time during the evening that anyone had suggested that some of the scores of pictures on sale might not be authentic. A minute later Sheila Mackenzie, an art collector in the audience, pushed the issue further. “They're not by J. E. H. MacDonald, and you know it.” she called out.

In the hubbub that followed, Ben WardPrice demanded that Mrs. Mackenzie give her name; she refused; his assistant asked her to leave the sales room; she refused again. WardPrice then stated his creed: “An auctioneer’s job,” he said, “is to sell what is sent to him.” He explained then — as he had not explained in his newspaper ads for this show, or in the catalogue, or in his sales pitches for the paintings — that he did not guarantee the authenticity of the pictures he sold. They might be by í. E. H. MacDonald, he said in effect, or they might not. “This is the way we intend to go on,” he said, “despite a few . . . communists, perhaps?” The audience booed him for this breach of manners, but soon the bidding picked up again. A few minutes later an

oil painting said to be by Emily Carr was apparently sold for $1,200. Later in the evening paintings said to be by Franklin Carmichael, Tom Thomson, A. Y. Jackson, F. S. Coburn, Maurice Cullen and many others were auctioned off, at similarly handsome prices.

Were they fakes? Ward-Price says he doesn’t know. And his policy is not to tell where they came from or where they went after the sale. As he had explained to me earlier in the day in his office, “I don't say they’re authentic, anti I don't say they’re not. 1 just sell them. We have previews, and people can come and see them before they buy. If they don’t think they’re authentic, then they don’t bid on them.” If you buy a painting at Ward-Price or any other auction house, and then decide it’s a fake, you can’t demand your money back: every sale is final.

THE PRICE OF A FAKE: $50 TO $2,000

But Ward-Price’s advertising, like his sales pitch, is something else again. A newspaper ad for the sale in question said that one painting was “By Tom Thomson,” without qualification. The catalogue of the sale said the same. So did the little brass plate on the painting. When Ward-Price auctioned it he repeated the statement. Until the outburst involving Mrs. Mackenzie, the only warning a buyer at that sale was given was a notice displayed on the wall of the sales room, headed “Conditions of Sale.” Condition No. 10 said: “All paintings and fine art are sold as ‘by attributed to’ the artists as catalogued.” Ward-Price explained to me that, as you read through his catalogue, you mentally insert “attributed to” before each of the names in bold type. But did Ward-Price get any authentication of the pictures before he sold them? No, he took them as they were offered, by the people who gave them to him for auction.

The importance of the incident on Nov. 15 was that it brought to the surface, for the first time, a situation that has worried many painters, collectors, and curators for years. The fact is that there now exist hundreds of fake paintings attributed to Canadian artists. These paintings sell for prices ranging from around $50 to $2,000. They arc fakes in the literal sense of the word — not false attributions but pictures painted by someone, somewhere, as forgeries (usually bad ones) of Canadian artists. Some witnesses:

• William Withrow, the director of the Art Gallery of Toronto, says that “The dead artists of the Group of Seven have been faked for some years. This is something few people know about. They think an artist has to be dead two hundred years before anyone will fake his work.

“People come to the gallery often and ask us to authenticate pictures said to be by important Canadian artists. We are always telling people that they have bought fake Thomsons, or MacDonalds, or Morrices. Some of them go away in tears.”

• A. J. Casson, who joined the Group of Seven in 1924 and is the youngest surviving member, says that this has been a scandal among the Group members for years. He saw his first fake Group of Seven painting, a Thomson, ten years ago. Since then he’s seen scores of fake Thomsons and MacDonalds, some of them pretty good, some terrible. He and A. Y. Jackson spend a lot of their time telling people that the Group of Seven pictures they’ve bought are frauds. “It’s certainly not helping the name of the Group,” Casson says.

• Thoreau MacDonald, the painter and son of J. E. H. MacDonald, says that in the last few years hundreds of fake MacDonalds have

been sold, some of them for as much as $600. Fake MacDonalds are often brought to Thoreau for authentication. One time two men came with twelve of them, bought in a Toronto art gallery. All were frauds. Thoreau has sought a lawyer’s advice on how to stop the sale of these frauds and thus protect his father’s name. So far he’s had no luck.

• Paul Duval, the Toronto art critic, an expert in Canadian paintings, says that he has seen obviously manufactured fakes bearing the names of Thomson, MacDonald, Emily Carr, J. W. Morrice, David Milne, and Cornelius Krieghoff. He thinks this endangers the market for genuine art by discouraging new collectors. “Young people buy a fake in an auction house, then they bring it to me and I say it’s not real. They don’t buy any more. It takes a long time to get over something like that.”

The most faked Canadian pictures are, naturally, those by artists who bring the highest prices. Krieghoff is the all-time favorite; it's now an old joke among collectors to say of someone that “He has a dozen Krieghoffs, some of which may even be Krieghoffs.” Thomson, MacDonald and Morrice are also favorites; fake Carrs and F. S. Coburns are comparatively rare, though apparently increasing.

How can a collector, or a would-be collector, protect himself against fake paintings? If he buys at an auction house he should first have the painting authenticated by an expert, during the two-day or three-day preview which precedes the sale. If he buys from a private gallery he should learn the reputation of the gallery first.

Right now the biggest mystery in Canadian art is the identity of the fakers. None of the people mentioned above, nor any of the dozen others I've consulted, has ever met a painter who claimed to have executed these pictures. There are more than enough rumors: about a factory that existed a few years ago, in which three or four men (one for backgrounds, one for figures, etc.) collaborated on fake Krieghoffs; about two men who are supposed to be turning out MacDonalds in a basement in Montreal; about a studio in Europe that turns out fakes for any country, on request.

At this point the only certainty is that there are such fakes, that they have been fetching high prices for years, and that a great many Canadians who believe they own distinguished art are actually in possession of nearly worthless junk.