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A Group of Seven mystery

In 2015, the Vancouver Art Gallery announced a blockbuster acquisition of 10 'newly discovered' J.E.H. MacDonald sketches. Yet more than two years later, Marsha Lederman writes, the authenticity of the works remains a question mark


It was a spectacular story, infused in mystery: In early 2015, the Vancouver Art Gallery announced the donation of 10 "newly discovered and never-before-displayed" oil sketches by Group of Seven co-founder J.E.H. MacDonald from early in his career. Where had they been all these years?

It was quite a tale: The VAG explained that the artist buried the paintings on his property in Thornhill, Ont., before his death in 1932. They were dug up by his son Thoreau MacDonald in 1974; Max Merkur, a family friend, happened to be around when the paintings were unearthed. Merkur, a real estate developer and art collector, bought them all. They remained in the Merkur home in Toronto for a further four decades, unseen by the general public.

Falls Montreal River, 1920. Experts in Canadian historical art urged the Vancouver Art Gallery to test its 10 ‘newly discovered’ J.E.H. Macdonald oil sketches for authenticity.

Max Merkur died in 2007, followed by his wife Reta Merkur in 2012. After Reta's death, the paintings were discovered by their son Ephraim (Ephry) Merkur "in pristine condition," according to the VAG's news release. They were authenticated and donated to the gallery by Ephry and his brother Melvin (Mel) Merkur.

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"We are thrilled to have received these extraordinary paintings that are accompanied by such an incredible story," VAG director Kathleen Bartels was quoted in the news release issued at the time.

But almost immediately, experts in Canadian historical art raised eyebrows over the story, and urged the VAG to test the sketches for authenticity.

Wild River, 1919

The gallery did, sending some of the sketches to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa for scientific testing. But more than eight months after receiving the report from CCI, the VAG is declining to release information about the report's findings.

CCI has told The Globe and Mail that its report was delivered to the VAG last September. The Globe's requests for information to VAG officials about the report and the sketches have met with a standard response: Research is ongoing; the VAG has no information to share at this time.

One part of the story that raised skepticism in Canadian historical-art circles was the decision to involve a gallery in Hamilton rather than one of the dealers that are considered experts in the Group of Seven. The Merkurs engaged the Arctic Experience McNaught Gallery to organize the vast Merkur art collection and family records – and that's where the story of the burial was discovered.

"We found the correspondence that explained the story," Janet McNaught told The Globe at the time.

The works were authenticated by Ian Thom, the VAG's senior curator-historical, and one of the country's top experts in the Group of Seven.

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Tangled Garden, 1916

"When Ian Thom came to see them, no one else knew they existed. No one in the art world at large," McNaught said in 2015. She added that Thom was "speechless, literally."

"I realized that these were sketches that related to major things in [MacDonald's] career and that I recognized hadn't been seen before and they would be a dramatic addition to the Vancouver Art Gallery's collection," Thom told The Globe in 2015.

The works were also authenticated by another highly respected expert, Dennis Reid, former director of collections and research at the Art Gallery of Ontario and professor of Canadian art in the University of Toronto's Graduate Department of Art.

Alan Klinkhoff, a Montreal dealer and appraiser with great expertise in J.E.H. MacDonald, was asked to appraise the paintings. But when he saw them in Hamilton, he refused to conduct the appraisal. He was uncomfortable with the works, he revealed after the controversy was reported by The Globe.

"With only momentary delay while looking about the room, without exaggeration I can only say that shivers went up my spine," he wrote in a blog post.

The Elements, 1916

He later added in the post, "I preferred caution and refused to conduct the requested appraisal. Furthermore, had I been given the opportunity to purchase for resale any one of them, I would have elected not to do so."

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When contacted by The Globe this week, he said he would still respond the same way.

The VAG announced the donation on Jan. 13, 2015. "Following a remarkable history, 10 rare artworks will be made accessible to the public for the first time since their creation," the news release promised.

"It's really a great tribute to my parents; it's a great tribute to a wonderful artist," Ephry Merkur told The Globe at the time.

The 10 sketches were oils on paperboard made early in MacDonald's career, from around 1910 until 1922. They included studies for some of his most iconic large-scale paintings, including Mist Fantasy, Northland and The Tangled Garden, the release said.

Mist Fantasy, 1922

But after questions were raised about the sketches and the controversy was made public, the gallery sent some of the sketches to the Canadian Conservation Institute for testing. It was part of a collaborative research project involving the McMichael Canadian Art Collection studying techniques and materials used by MacDonald.

Ahead of the testing, CCI told The Globe: "Through our scientific examination, we will be able to determine if the materials of the VAG works are consistent with those of the J.E.H. MacDonald works studied as part of our project."

CCI says the results were delivered to the VAG on Sept. 2, 2016. CCI would not reveal the contents of the report, referring the Globe to the Vancouver Art Gallery. But the VAG has not disclosed the results, despite repeated requests by The Globe.

"There is no new information to share at this time," VAG director of marketing, communications and public affairs Johanie Marcoux wrote in an e-mail in response to a request for an interview with Bartels, the VAG director, on the issue in December, 2016.

"Research is still ongoing and we have no new information to share at this time," Thom wrote in a January e-mail.

Leaves in the Brook, 1919

When asked what the report said, Thom did not respond. But Marcoux, who was copied on the e-mail, replied, "We are still doing extensive research on this matter and we have no new information to share at this time."

When asked about it again this week, Thom responded, "We have no information to share at this time."

Reid, when contacted by The Globe, said it was not for him to disclose the findings.

"I have not seen the reports … so I have nothing to say about them," he said during an interview in January, adding that he was told the VAG had seen the results.

Contacted this week, Reid said he had still not seen the report. "The report was prepared, as I understand it, at [the Vancouver Art Gallery's] request and so, in that sense, is theirs to disclose or not as they see fit."

The Lonely North, 1913

McNaught, when reached by phone last week, declined to comment. She had earlier told The Globe that she knew the report had been delivered to the VAG.

Calls to Ephry Merkur and his son Darcy Merkur, with whom The Globe has previously communicated about the donation, were not returned.

There are tax incentives to be had for donating art to a public gallery. The Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board has a certification process that offers tax benefits as a way to encourage the transfer of significant examples of Canada's artistic heritage from private hands to public collections. Tax credits are based on the fair market value of the property, as determined by the board.

Ten authentic MacDonald sketches in pristine condition would be valuable; these sketches were worth between $5-million and $10-million, according to a January, 2015, article in Maclean's about the donation.

A Globe inquiry made under the Access to Information Act asked for documentation related to the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board regarding certification and any tax receipts issued for the donation. The response indicated that 110 pages relevant to the request were found but withheld entirely, as they qualify for exemptions under the act owing to the nature of the information (including personal and financial information).

Cattle by the Creek, 1918

A second Access to Information inquiry to the Department of Canadian Heritage, requesting information about the CCI report itself, was received on May 5. It too indicated that the information requested was being withheld entirely.

At the time the donation was announced, the VAG said the works would be displayed as part of a larger exhibition in the fall of 2015. None of the sketches has been displayed publicly to date. The mystery remains.

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