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Detail of an oil on paperboard sketch for Falls, Montreal River, by J.E.H. MacDonald, donated by Ephry and Melvin Merkur. (Vancouver Art Gallery)
Detail of an oil on paperboard sketch for Falls, Montreal River, by J.E.H. MacDonald, donated by Ephry and Melvin Merkur. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

The controversy surrounding the Vancouver Art Gallery’s J.E.H. MacDonald donation Add to ...

In January, the Vancouver Art Gallery issued a news release announcing an astonishing donation: Ten “newly discovered and never-before-displayed oil paintings” by Group of Seven co-founder J.E.H. MacDonald. The VAG explained they had been buried in a yard north of Toronto for more than 40 years and then kept in a private residence for further decades. The works – many of them studies for some of MacDonald’s most iconic paintings – were donated by the Merkur family of Toronto and would be exhibited at the VAG in the fall. In the media release, gallery director Kathleen Bartels said she was thrilled with the sketches and described the story behind their discovery as “incredible.”

But a number of Canadian art veterans, including influential dealers and collectors, wonder if the story is incredible, literally, and are eager to see further testing to verify the authenticity of the artwork. Among the concerns that are being raised: the too-good condition of the oil sketches following such a long burial; the techniques displayed in the sketches themselves; and the alarmingly low price for which they were reported to have been sold in the 1970s. The resulting controversy is an art-world showdown between two spheres of influence, pitting institutions and academics against collectors and dealers.

One of those concerned is Ken Macdonald, a retired but still active art dealer and consultant, who saw the paintings at a private viewing at the VAG the same week the gallery announced the extraordinary find. “When I walked in and saw those paintings, my instincts just said, whoa,” says Macdonald, who only saw them on the wall, and did not see the backs of the sketches. He phoned the gallery’s senior curator-historical Ian Thom later that day to express his concerns, and urged him to send the paintings for testing to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa.

“I can be wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it,” Macdonald tells The Globe and Mail. “But there are so many people across Canada that have their doubts.… It’s my opinion that there’s an excellent chance, a very excellent chance, that they are not right, and they absolutely have to be tested.”

An oil of paperboard sketch for Mist Fantasy by J.E.H. MacDonald. (All images donated by Ephry and Melvin Merkur to the Vancouver Art Gallery)

The story was related to The Globe and Mail in a series of interviews with Thom; Ephraim (Ephry) Merkur, whose family made the donation; and Hamilton-based gallerist Janet McNaught, who helped broker the deal. They explained that Ephraim Merkur, dealing with the enormous family art collection following the 2012 death of his mother Reta Merkur (and prior to that in 2007, the death of his father Max Merkur), had been unaware of the value or provenance of these 10 oil sketches. But after going through extensive family records, McNaught, who was hired by the family to deal with the collection, discovered the story of the burial.

In June of 2014, McNaught called in Thom, who is considered one of the country’s foremost experts on the Group of Seven. Thom studied the artwork as well as the documentary material – including letters about the burial from J.E.H. MacDonald’s son Thoreau MacDonald and Group of Seven co-founder A.J. Casson, and a statement from Max Merkur about how he helped Thoreau MacDonald dig them up. Of the 10 sketches, eight were initialed or inscribed by J.E.H. MacDonald and one is titled by J.E.H. MacDonald. All 10 were certified by Thoreau MacDonald; six were also certified by Casson.

Thom called in Dennis Reid, who is also considered one of the top experts in the field. Reid, the former director of collections and research at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and a professor of art history at the University of Toronto, agreed with Thom’s assessment. The two of them authenticated the works. And Merkur offered Thom the 10 MacDonalds for donation to the VAG.

“I basically said to him we really appreciate your help that you spent this much time and interest; and what would you like us to contribute to the VAG, because they really spent so much time. I mean, he flew here [to Toronto] and he spent four days and it was very hard to get … people that interested. ” Merkur told The Globe.

“It’s just nice when people treat you nice.”

In an interview the day the donation was announced, during The Globe’s reporting on the story, Thom called it the second most important historical gift to the gallery, after the Emily Carr Trust collection. In an e-mail to The Globe this week, he wrote, “These works are of astonishing quality and when I first had the opportunity to examine the 10 sketches, it ranked among the most important moments in my long career as a curator and art historian.”

But The Globe and Mail has spoken with a number of highly respected and knowledgeable figures involved in the historical Canadian art market who expressed concerns about the donation. Some spoke on condition of anonymity or off the record. It was clear that this donation has been generating a lot of talk in their circles.

“It’s a shame for the entire art community if a cloud remains over this issue,” says Ash Prakash, one of the country’s top collectors with a wealth of knowledge in historical Canadian art, including the Group of Seven.

An oil on paperboard sketch for Wild River by J.E.H. MacDonald.

The chatter – and some of it has been pointed – has set highly respected figures from the private Canadian art world against highly respected Canadian art scholars.

Thom, who has excellent credentials, remains confident in the find. “I would never have presented these works to the Vancouver Art Gallery acquisitions committee and to the public if I did not believe that they were the real thing,” he told The Globe in an interview when asked about the doubts being raised. “I don’t know why these people are saying what they’re saying. They obviously don’t know the entire situation and I don’t think it’s my job to tell them the entire situation either.… But the fact is that we believe that they are what we said they were and … none of the people who have phoned me have offered me one bit of evidence to suggest that they are not by J.E.H. MacDonald.”

Among the skeptics is Winnipeg-based art dealer Shaun Mayberry, a specialist in Canadian art.

“Far be it from me to be judge and jury in this situation, but I do feel that the Vancouver Art Gallery has not done enough due diligence in this situation.” He adds: “On the flipside, let’s make the assumption that everything is right: It’s an unbelievable find.…

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions here,” says Mayberry.

“I think due diligence should take place and these paintings should be looked at more carefully,” Rod Green with Calgary-based Masters Gallery says. (Like Prakash, Green and Mayberry have not yet seen the paintings in person.)

The call for testing was echoed by several dealers and collectors who spoke with The Globe, including Prakash. “If the Vancouver Art Gallery feels that these paintings are right they should put this to bed by submitting them for testing,” he says.

During an interview in late January, Thom told The Globe that testing the sketches at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa would not be conclusive. “All it will prove is that the paint is right for the period or not right for the period. It won’t prove that J.E.H. MacDonald painted them,” he said. He added, however, that he wants to participate in a new study that Ontario’s McMichael Canadian Art Collection has partnered with the CCI, where, in advance of a planned major J.E.H. MacDonald retrospective at the McMichael, they are conducting in-depth research into the main material and techniques of MacDonald’s oeuvre.

One of the biggest red flags mentioned during interviews with private art-world figures is the burial story: that MacDonald buried the artwork in the early 1930s to protect it before heading south for health reasons, and that the sketches were not unearthed until 1974 when his son, Thoreau MacDonald, was preparing to vacate the property.

An oil on paperboard sketch for Leaves in the Brook by J.E.H. MacDonald.

“Nobody in their right mind, J.E.H. MacDonald or anyone, would bury paintings in cellophane or boxes. Why would you bury them?,” says Ken Macdonald.

“And after he died in ’32, why would the son wait 40 years to get them out of there?,” adds long-time dealer Michel Bigué of Canadian Fine Arts in Toronto, who specializes in Group of Seven, in a separate interview. “It’s such a weird story that it’s hard to believe.”

Further, there are questions about what sort of condition the works might have been in after being unearthed.

“Those things would be totally disintegrated. They would have worms. They would be all warped … because they’re painted on cardboard,” says Bigué, who has not seen the paintings in person. “If they had been buried, there’s a good chance they would need serious restoration; trust me.”

To that, Thom says, “the documents that I have seen … describe how they were very carefully wrapped, they were then put in airtight boxes, and then they were buried and they were left undisturbed for many, many years.”

Vancouver-based art dealer Matt Petley-Jones, who was with Macdonald at that private viewing in January at the VAG, says other problems with the paintings were immediately apparent to him. “I just felt they weren’t right,” says Petley-Jones, who also does art restoration and has worked on a number of MacDonald artworks. “Just the way they were painted, the consistency of the brush stroke, the opaqueness of the paint, the way the paint sort of looked.… There wasn’t that flow that J.E.H. MacDonald had.”

There is also the question of price. The works were reported to have been bought by Max Merkur from Thoreau MacDonald in the early 1970s for $35 each.

McNaught explains that the $35 figure came from a letter written by Thoreau MacDonald to Max Merkur about a different painting that was not part of this group, but which suggests that was the going rate for the sketches between the two friends. “Max bought an awful lot of stuff for rock-bottom prices; that’s how he did it, by buying large quantities of things.… So the idea of the price that Max paid being proof of anything is a complete red herring.” She adds that the paintings had “very little value in those days.”

But Petley-Jones disagrees. “The prices would have been way more than that in the early seventies,” he says. Auction records at Heffel indicate MacDonald oil-on-board panels sold for between $2,900 and $7,500 in 1974, the year Thoreau gave up ownership of the property.

Further, some eyebrows have been raised over the fact that sketches already exist for some of the works for which these studies are purported to be for, including Mist Fantasy. And some of the experts say that in some cases the recently found sketches are simply too close a match for the finished canvases – as if the small oil were a copy of the larger painting rather than a sketch in preparation for it.

“There’s a sketch that looks exactly like the canvas? It just doesn’t make sense. I’ve never seen that in my career,” says Bigué. “Usually the sketch will be something that is done very quickly on location. It does look like the canvas but there are some differences.”

An oil on paperboard sketch for Cattle by the Creek by J.E.H. MacDonald.

Charles Hill, the recently retired long-time curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada, wrote in an e-mail to The Globe that “It is not impossible MacDonald painted more than one compositional sketch for one canvas (he did so for The Elements … but in that instance he combined differing details from the two sketches) but the sudden appearance of compositional oil sketches for well-known canvases does raise questions.” Hill, a highly respected Canadian art expert, points out that he has not seen the sketches in the flesh, and ended the e-mail, “I have no firm opinion. Just questions.”

Toronto lawyer Darcy Merkur, Ephry Merkur’s son, suggests dealers who are raising concerns about these paintings may have an ulterior motive. “The family has some gems. And there’s always been people out on the market trying to access those gems and they would like to do so for a discount and they haven’t been available,” he says.

He adds, “Why would somebody care to raise questions about authentic art unless they had a financial interest in doing so?… If somebody is going to make false allegations it’s going to be with a motive and the only rational motive would be to access the gems in the family portfolio either at a discount or trying to incentivize my family to sell when they’ve been completely unwilling to do so.”

In fact, Ken Macdonald has been trying to buy two other paintings in the Merkur collection – one by J.E.H. MacDonald, and another by Lawren Harris. But when I asked if he was trying to knock the price down by raising questions about this donation, Macdonald scoffed. “We’re not trying to get [the] price down. That’s nonsense. I would buy it today for what I think it’s worth.” He says Harris works are in extremely high demand, so bargains are not to be had.

He points out that he is not alone in asking these questions; other dealers and collectors have raised doubts as well. “Why would everybody get together and play a game? We’re dealers. We hide from each other. We don’t get along in that way. We’re all friends but … we compete.”

At the Arctic Experience McNaught Gallery in Hamilton, McNaught says, “We expected that there would be dealers who didn’t like the fact that we had [the collection], because we’re not one of the long-time members of the art establishment who kind of have the inside track on paintings.”

Several of the doubters did indeed tell The Globe that this gallery seems like an unusual, off-the-beaten-track choice for dealing with Group of Seven work. “That isn’t her specialty … whereas the rest of us have these paintings on our walls every day of our lives for the last 15 to 30 years,” says Macdonald. He adds, “Why would you go to Hamilton, and why would you send them to Vancouver?”

The Merkurs became acquainted with the McNaught Gallery through a family member who lives in Hamilton and is a client of the gallery. It was a good fit, McNaught explains, because unlike some of the more high-profile, bigger-city galleries known for their Group of Seven dealings, her gallery was able to give the Merkurs what they really needed: not just the ability to sell the most valuable paintings in the enormous collection, but the willingness to catalogue everything. “A dealer in Toronto with high overhead can’t afford the time.” says McNaught.

An oil on paperboard sketch for Falls, Montreal River by J.E.H. MacDonald.

It was during that work, sifting through more than 200 works and piles of documents, that she learned of the buried treasure – the MacDonald sketches.

“I know the story is very unusual,” says McNaught (who had the paint tested by a conservator; it checked out). “I was astounded by what I saw and spent a long time trying to figure out exactly what we had; could it possibly be what it looked like?… I went in with sort of reasonable doubt to begin with. And every single question that I had we found an answer, until the only conclusion I could come to was that they must be right, and that’s when I called Ian.”

“I am certain Ian took all steps to verify their authenticity,” Hill writes. “This is not to say there might not be remaining questions.”

Two outside appraisers have assessed the works, as required by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board for certification (and a tax receipt). A donation of this calibre would net the Merkurs a hefty tax benefit likely worth millions. Thom was not at liberty to say what the paintings were appraised at, he says, or whether the donation has been certified.

Thom stands by his careful assessment. In his e-mail, he wrote: “I remain convinced of the authenticity of these works.”

Bartels, the VAG’s director, also sent The Globe a statement on Thursday, thanking the Merkurs for the generous gift and pointing out that Thom and Reid are two of the most respected experts in this country, whose “connoisseurship and knowledge in the field of Canadian art is incomparable.”

The gallery is planning to show a few of the sketches this fall, and will mount a much larger exhibition in 2017 which, among other things, will trace the relationship between MacDonald and his influential contemporary, Canadian painter Tom Thomson.

Wrote Bartels: “We look forward to presenting these outstanding works to our visitors in the years to come.”

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