Over this Christmas past, I had the pleasure of reading a book, written by Canadian art historian Jon S. Dellandrea, titled “The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case.” Due to my background in conservation and later as a curator, I had my own brush (pun intended) with fakes and forgeries, and will have something to say about that later. Dellandrea’s narrative is a fascinating one, and a warning for those who want to collect art.
Dellandrea noted that there are those who collect art, and those who collect names, and it is the latter group who frequently fall victim to fraudulent art. He contends that the art world “seeks out, creates, and then celebrates a small group of ‘stars’ who are worshipped to the exclusion of artists of equal or greater talent.” He goes further: “Critics, dealers, art historians, hustlers, promoters, art magazines and public galleries all play a part in the business of creating the stars and influencing the market.”
Collectors can fall victim to buying the signature at the bottom of the painting, without any regard to the quality, or authenticity of the work to which they are affixed. Cornelius Krieghoff, for instance, is one of Canada’s most highly regarded artists. He produced hundreds of paintings during his career, thousands of which now appear in the collections of private collectors and public galleries, thanks to the creative talents of art forgers.
Dellandrea builds his story around a box of old newspaper clippings and archival material with extensive recordings of conversations with A. J. Casson (the youngest and last surviving member of Canada’s famous artists known as the Group of Seven), and extensive research in various archives.
And what a story it is. Take impoverished artist William Firth MacGregor, famed artist A.J. Casson, James Erskine (a determined police detective), Nathan Stolow (a scientist with an international reputation), and a rogues gallery of questionable characters (some of whom went to prison for their fraudulent deceptions), and you have the makings of a fascinating account of the dodgy world of art forgery.
Much can be said about art connoisseurship, art history and art experts. Boiled down, they base their work on the subjective accumulation of their experience, and a “feeling” for art. They analyze brush strokes, composition, and content, and pass judgement on the authenticity of works of art. It is an intuitive process, and sometimes prone to error.
I put my faith in science. If a pigment, such as titanium white, is found on a supposed 19th century masterpiece, you know it is a fraud, for the pigment wasn’t available until the 20th century. Similarly, how could art dated to the 1920s be painted upon Masonite panels, which didn’t become available on the market for another 20 years?
Flooding the market with known forgeries in the early 1960s threatened to dilute the value of the genuine goods. The author combines his intimate knowledge of the art world with research, and serendipitous acquisitions to reveal how, in the 1960s a massive art fraud enterprise was uncovered, evidence gathered, specialists consulted and individuals successfully prosecuted. This is a cautionary tale and a great read for anybody with a genuine interest in collecting Canadian art.
My “brush” with the art world came through a period during my conservation training, when I got to work with one of the world’s foremost art conservators. I even had the privilege of performing a minor conservation treatment on a work by Lawren Harris. I also attended a lecture given by Dr. Nathan Stolow, then head of the Canadian Conservation Institute, regarding his involvement in the scientific analysis of the specimens collected in the 1962 art fraud case.
Occasionally, the Canadian Conservation Institute would be called upon to perform scientific analysis upon certain items that were offered for sale to one museum or another. I was fascinated when it was discovered that the wrong pigments were used, or the wrong method of fabrication was employed, revealing that some of the offerings were not what they were made out to be.
These works were often accompanied by letters of authentication by authorities in various fields of study, and subtle pressure was applied to buy the goods. And woe to those who might question the authenticity or challenge the endorsements, because the reputation of experts was at stake. Lawsuits are often threatened to scare you away. And then there are the collectors, who resent you revealing the fakes because the works they purchased for thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars are devalued to hundreds in an instant!
As a curator of collections for Klondike National Historic Sites, I found myself occasionally exposed to some dodgy dealings. One vendor wanted to sell Parks Canada a painting which was alleged to have hung in one of Dawson City’s infamous saloons. Accompanying the offer was a photo of the painting in question, and a colourful story explaining that the yellow stains visible under ultraviolet light were from chewing tobacco spit upon the paintings as an expression of distaste for the art work. There are many materials other than tobacco juice that fluoresce under ultraviolet light, including retouches and infills. The dealer as much as implied that I was a fool not to acquire this painting, but I turned it down.
Another dealer offered for sale an old portable organ, which he stated came from the Klondike gold rush. We could have it for a mere $45,000. I turned that down too, and learned that he had later offered it to another large institution at double the price. He told them that they had better hurry and buy it because we were in the bidding for it. Fortunately, the curator involved contacted me about the organ, and I confirmed that the dealer was lying. I think they, too, turned down the offer to buy it.
Often, such items come with a story associating the object with a famous person or event, like Jack London or a rich Eldorado gold miner. Fortunately, many of these claims can readily be dismissed because the facts just don’t support them. In the future, we can expect to see forgeries of prominent Yukon artists like Ted Harrison and Jim Robb, as their names are elevated to the pantheon of art superstars.
The bottom line: collectors beware. Disreputable dealers may be offering you the work of a master forger, and not the real thing. Buy your art because you like the work, and not because of the name attached to it.
The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case, by Jon S. Dellandrea, was published by Goose Lane Editions in 2022. It is 189 pages long with 85 colour illustrations, including a selection of fraudulent paintings from the author’s own collection. Footnotes and a three-page bibliography are included.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.