This is a tale of two shabby containers: one a six-quart basket, the other a broken-down bankers box.
The six-quart basket belonged to Miss Winnifred Trainor of Huntsville, Ont. It held a dozen or so small paintings that were unsigned but had been given to her by her very close friend Tom Thomson.
She kept them in the basket inside a steamer trunk on the second-floor of an old home on Minerva Street. She did not have running hot water or a proper heating system, yet she would never part with any of the paintings during her long life, which ended in 1962.
Whenever she travelled to visit relatives in upstate New York, she would carry the six-quart basket across the street to the house of Miss Addie Sylvester, the town’s night Bell operator. Addie would stash them behind her wood stove.
Fortunately, these national treasures never caught fire.
The bankers box belongs to Jon Dellandrea of Toronto. He has spent a lifetime collecting Canadian art and publishing articles on fakes and forgeries. The box was found at a city art dealer and contained paintings and journals of William Firth MacGregor (no relation), an obscure artist who came to Canada from Scotland and failed to make his intended mark on the Canadian art scene. While his brother Charles became a successful portrait painter, Willie found no success at all as a landscape painter and turned to teaching art in Ottawa and Vancouver until he vanished.
But that is not to suggest that “Willie” MacGregor did not have an impact – at times a major one – on Canadian art.
In 2016, Dellandrea had been offered the contents of the box at a modest price but had turned it down. He couldn’t stop wondering about the contents, however – Who was this person? – and finally his wife, Lyne, sent him back to the dealer to buy the box. “If you don’t,” she told him, “you’re going to drive me crazy.”
He returned with the box and began picking through it. He was particularly taken with multiple miniature paintings by MacGregor that he thought were rather well executed. Some time later, he found himself at Waddington’s, the prestigious Toronto art auction house, where a painting entitled Study for Spring Thaw, signed by Clarence A. Gagnon and dated 1909, was up for sale, the estimated value $700 to $1,000.
“It was like seeing a ghost,” Dellandrea recalls.
He returned home, dug through the MacGregor box and found a miniature almost exactly the same as the larger painting on sale. (“I have a very good visual memory,” he says.) When he took the miniature to the auction house, the “Gagnon” was immediately removed as a fake. “They of course did the right thing,” says Dellandrea. The coincidence led to Dellandrea’s new and excellent book, The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven & Tom Thomson Forgeries, published this fall.
Dellandrea believes the art market is easily open to fraud. “I have long held the view that the art world is a crazy, illogical enterprise that 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 writes in his book. “Individual collectors fall prey to buying art from a name-brand artist, focusing on the signature at the bottom (or top) of the canvas rather than the quality of the art. This collective impulse to worship the stars typically has a distorting effect on the art market around the world, as it does in Canada.”
One such celebrated artist would be J.E.H. MacDonald, Thomson’s friend and a founder of the Group of Seven. At an auction held 60 years ago this month, 15 oil sketches were being offered in his name. Respected Toronto Star art critic Elizabeth Kilbourn challenged the auctioneer, standing up at one point and shouting, “They’re not J.E.H. MacDonald and you know it!”
The art dealer responded by saying that “An auctioneer’s job is to sell what is sent to him” – and the house cannot be expected to guarantee the authenticity of every painting it sells.
Thus began the great fake-art debate in Canada. Writing in Maclean’s in December, 1962, Robert Fulford contended that “… a great many who believe they own distinguished art are actually in possession of nearly worthless junk.”
Much of Dellandrea’s book concerns a dramatic Toronto court case from the early 1960s, when two shady dealers were charged and convicted of selling forgeries of Canada’s most-famous artists. A great many of those forgeries had been painted by Willie MacGregor.
In the winter of 1963, the Toronto Telegram put on an “art authentication night” at a downtown hotel, where 18 of the nearly 80 paintings brought in were declared fake by a panel of experts, including Group of Seven member A.J. Casson (who was himself a consultant in the court case).
Many powerful people were upset to have been duped, but those familiar with the art world were not surprised. As Sara Angel, executive director of the Art Canada Institute, says in a note for Dellandrea’s book, “… for decades scholars, auction houses, galleries and museums have turned a blind eye to felonies in plain sight.” The preliminary inquiry that began in November, 1962, ended on March 4, 1963, with the two shady dealers pleading guilty. They received jail terms of one and two years.
Willie MacGregor, a witness in the case, was critical to the great deception. MacGregor, who split his time between Algonquin Park and an apartment on Toronto’s Church Street, would paint pictures from books supplied by one of the dealers and thought he was just doing cheap copies that would be sold as such. He signed none of them, yet, when forged, signatures would appear. The dealers had even created two facsimiles of “TT” stamps that Thomson’s friends had created for his many unsigned works.
“There are more Tom Thomson paintings out there than he could possibly have painted in his lifetime,” says Dellandrea.
Before Casson’s death in 1992, he was interviewed extensively by artist Alan Collier; the interviews filled an entire box of tapes that Casson’s daughter, Margaret Hall, kept and gave to Dellandrea.
“We could have found another 500,” Casson believed, adding that he thought that “Willie knew what was going on, but he was smart enough that he never signed anything.”
Dellandrea disagrees. “I don’t think he knew, for a couple of reasons,” he says. “He was certainly not party to a conspiracy. He was never charged.” MacGregor would get a few dollars for his paintings, unaware that they might be sold for upward of $1,000 – big money for an artist in the early 1960s. The judge decided he was an “innocent victim.”
“He was penniless,” says Dellandrea. Willie MacGregor was later taken in by a family and lived on Toronto Island, in obscurity. He died in 1979 and is buried in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
“Virtually no one has any recollection of the scandal,” says Dellandrea. He believes such fraud still goes on: “It’s everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.”
To wit: Dellandrea found an A.Y. Jackson canvas on sale earlier this year for $40,000. He went to examine it and subsequently informed the dealer that he was “100 per cent certain it was a fake.”
“They would not listen to me,” Dellandrea says.
Dellandrea maintains that the large, well-known auction houses are “absolutely fastidious about providence and authenticity.” His advice: Stay away from the smaller houses that deal only partly in art – “and never, ever buy off eBay.”
What, then, of that six-quart basket of Tom Thomson sketches?
They were not signed but were given, in person, to Winnie Trainor, who would never part with them and would eventually leave them to a nephew in the United States.
Dellandrea says there is a genuine Tom Thomson coming up in an early December auction at Cowley Abbott Fine Art in Toronto. He has no doubt it is a legitimate Thomson. The house catalogue estimates it will go for between $1.2- and $1.5-million.
Today, that six-quart basket would be worth around $18-million.
To a woman with no running hot water.
And only a creaky space heater to carry her through the winter.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.