Skip to main content

'Tom Thomson? The Art of Authentication,' which opened in September, is organized around five elements of authentication: signature, style, subject matter, materials and provenance.Robert McNair/AGH

There are nearly 40 works hanging at the Tom Thomson exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton right now. Two in particular are the stars of the show, or at least its raison d’être. These two works may or may not have been painted by Mr. Thomson.

“Tom Thomson? The Art of Authentication,” which travels to Kingston in February, is a thoughtful show that does not offer a conclusive yes or no. The exhibition came together as the result of coincidence, collaboration and creativity. And it is about much more than Mr. Thomson himself.

“We’re actually just using him,” says Tobi Bruce, director, exhibitions and collections and senior curator at the AGH. “The lovely byproduct is that you get this amazing collection of Thomsons to look at too.”

In his brief career as a painter before his mysterious death in 1917, Mr. Thomson produced hundreds of oil sketches. And, as the show’s catalogue notes, he is among the most faked Canadian artists.

People who work in historical Canadian art get a lot of inquiries that go something like this: I bought this painting at a flea market and I have reason to believe it’s a Tom Thomson. Can you have a look?

Tom Thomson Ragged Lake, 1915 Oil on wood 21.2. × 26.2 cm Art Gallery of Hamilton Gift of Mrs. G. Y. Douglas, 1963Art Gallery of Hamilton

But when Ms. Bruce got this particular inquiry in 2014 from a Mississauga man, it came with some backing from June Bramall, a prominent art restorer who had done work for the AGH. Ms. Bramall had uncovered a “TT” signature when she cleaned the piece.

The man had bought the work – for about $100 – at the Freelton Antique Mall north of Hamilton because it caught his eye. There was some suggestion that it might be a Thomson, but not enough for him to take it seriously. It was so dirty it sat in a drawer in the guest bedroom of his little house for about two years before he pulled it out and brought it over to Ms. Bramall, a friend. He says that after she worked on it for a couple of months, Ms. Bramall told him she thought the piece was correct – the terminology used in authentication. (The Globe and Mail is not identifying the man, who is concerned about being named because of the potential value of the painting.)

Ms. Bramall, who died in 2018, helped put him in touch with Ms. Bruce.

“We don’t authenticate as institutional curators,” Ms. Bruce says. But she was intrigued. She mentioned it shortly thereafter while working on a project with Alicia Boutilier, chief curator/curator of Canadian historical art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston.

“And I said that’s so bizarre, you know, just six months ago, I had a similar situation,” Ms. Boutilier says. The painting that had been brought to her was found in a southwestern Ontario antique shop in about 1985. (The owner of that painting declined to speak with The Globe.)

Tom Thomson First Snow, 1916 Oil on composite wood-pulp board 21.5 × 26.7 cm Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston Gift of the Queen’s University Art Foundation, 1941Agnes Etherington Art Centre

At around the same time, a news story caught their attention: The Vancouver Art Gallery had acquired 10 works, it said, by Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald that had been buried for more than 40 years on his former property north of Toronto. But questions were raised about the works, as The Globe and Mail reported.

In response, Montreal-based gallerist and Canadian historical art expert Alan Klinkhoff proposed installing one or more of the sketches alongside known MacDonald sketches and inviting a panel of experts to assess them.

The light bulb went off: Ms. Bruce and Ms. Boutilier conceived an exhibition about authentication, with the two sketches in question as the nucleus.

The Hamilton sketch depicts a dock with boathouses and a single canoe floating on the lake. The Kingston sketch depicts trees in the snow, focusing on the trunks.

The exhibition, which opened in September, is organized around five elements of authentication: signature, style, subject matter, materials and provenance.

Tom Thomson The Birch Grove, Autumn, 1915–16 Oil on canvas 101.6 × 116.8 cm Art Gallery of Hamilton Gift of Roy G. Cole, in memory of his parents, Matthew and Annie Bell Gilmore Cole, 1967Art Gallery of Hamilton

The show begins with a gallery of six works that hang on the wall, sans labels. One is a known fake. Viewers are invited to determine which one it might be. This is the section that deals with signature – one of the first thing experts examine in attempting authentication. But Mr. Thomson rarely signed his work. Even when he did, the signature changed during his career; his early signature was larger, cursive and “far more declarative,” the catalogue notes.

In the materials section, the crucial role of scientific analysis is examined: technology that allows experts to check for paint the artist was known to have used, or for materials that were not available to the artist.

In style, one of the works in question is hung with known Thomsons; the wall labels are kept far away so viewers can again make an assessment. They’re invited to consider things such as brush strokes and colour.

While a departure from an artist’s known work can be a red flag, there are always anomalies. “As Alicia says, you always have to be open to the fact that artists are not always going to work in a box,” Ms. Bruce says. “It could have been something that they were trying out.”

The show also considers what is actually in the picture. Is it a place the artist is known to have been? Is it consistent with known works? But just because Mr. Thomson didn’t often paint buildings doesn’t mean he never did. “Subject matter can be a slippery exercise,” Ms. Boutilier says during a virtual tour of the exhibition.

Tom Thomson, Burnt Country c. 1915 Oil on composite wood-pulp board 21.4 × 26.5 cm Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound Gift of The Lyceum Club and Women’s Art Association of Owen Sound, 1967Tom Thomson Art Gallery

Finally, the show looks at provenance, the ownership history of the painting. Here, the detective work often focuses on what is written or stamped on the back of the work, and supporting documents.

The show ends with two known fakes that were part of a high-profile court case in the 1960s.

By the end, viewers often have an opinion. “People are pretty split,” Ms. Bruce says. Some will say there’s no way one or both of the paintings are not Thomsons; others are sure they’re not right. Visitors seem to love the exercise, the opportunity to be the judge, even without the gratification of a definitive answer.

The co-curators will not say what they think. “My own quiet opinion changes,” Ms. Boutilier says.

“We’re not Thomson specialists,” Ms. Bruce adds. “The real purpose of this for us, and I think where the project has been really successful, is it’s foregrounding all the behind-the-scenes work the curators, historians, dealers, conservators do when they try and authenticate something. And the public is so fascinated by that.”

Official authentication of a Thomson is extremely difficult; there are few experts who are willing to do it at this point. Basically, the only opportunity to have a work authenticated is by selling it at auction, as auction houses might still be willing to do the work and take on the responsibility for it.

Tom Thomson Woods in Winter, c. 1917 Oil on wood 14.5 × 20 cm Tom Thomson Art Gallery, Owen Sound Gift of Louise (Thomson) Henry, sister of Tom Thomson, 1967Tom Thomson Art Gallery

Joan Murray, the Thomson expert who wrote his catalogue raisonné (which lists every known authentic work of a particular artist), retired from active investigation of privately held Thomsons in 2016 and will not be adding to the list.

There is a proposal to open up a sort of addendum, with a non-authenticating register of works and supporting research materials. Acceptance would not signify authentication, but this would be a way to track possible Thomsons and supporting research materials in a central registry.

“Over the next hundred years, more works by Tom Thomson will come forward, just as Joan Murray herself predicted,” reads a draft proposal for the registry, prepared by Angie Littlefield, an expert whose books include Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends: Biography, History, Art and Food. “The art historical and research communities need to be on the ground floor of gathering the valuable materials that arise with such discoveries.”

Unknown artist (T. T.), Untitled, unknown date. (A sketch possibly done by Tom Thomson)Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Hamilton

Both of the works that form the nucleus of this exhibition are candidates.

The show closes in Hamilton on Jan. 2 and is scheduled to open at the Agnes on Feb. 26. After that, the paintings will be returned to their owners. The Mississauga man plans to bring his home and hang it on the wall.

Unknown artist (T. T.), Park Lodge Dock, unknown date. (A sketch possibly done by Tom Thomson)Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Hamilton

Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.