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book review

This bit of Canadian history is not merely a curiosity: Hundreds of the Lewis and Sharkey fakes remain unaccounted for and may yet surface in the marketplace.Doug Nicholson /Handout

  • Title: The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson Forgeries
  • Author: Jon S. Dellandrea
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Goose Lane
  • Pages: 192

If Canadians know Jon Dellandrea it is probably as a prolific fundraiser for hospitals and universities, but he is also an avid art collector with an interest in odd corners of the Canadian market.

In 2016, a Toronto dealer offered him a box of old papers and sketches, the property of William Firth MacGregor, a forgotten contemporary of the Group of Seven. The artist had immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1925 and quickly moved into the Toronto art community, eventually teaching and painting alongside Jock Macdonald in Vancouver and Goodridge Roberts in Ottawa before he disappeared from view.

Forgeries, frauds and Canada’s great fake art debate

Handout

In 2018, Dellandrea was browsing an auction catalogue when he discovered an unfinished painting that looked just like a little sketch in that box – odd thing was the larger painting of leafless trees and a river wasn’t attributed to MacGregor. It was signed with the signature of the more famous Clarence Gagnon. Dellandrea and the auction house quickly agreed the painting was not by Gagnon, and the listing was updated to note the signature was fake. When the work came to auction, Dellandrea bought it himself for $1,600: He had stumbled across a mystery and he wasn’t going to walk away.

This is how Dellandrea came to write The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case, an invigorating account of the 1963 inquiry into forgeries of Group of Seven works, along with pieces by other notable Canadian artists, and the subsequent conviction of Toronto art dealers Leslie Lewis and Neil Sharkey for fraud. The case was notorious at the time – two prominent journalists had publicly questioned the authenticity of paintings at the Ward-Price auction house, one right in the middle of a sale – and an investigation was launched when curator J. Russell Harper of the National Gallery of Canada complained to police.

Inspector James Erskine of the Ontario Provincial Police’s anti-rackets branch discovered that Lewis and Sharkey were the source of hundreds of paintings that Ward-Price was presenting as the work of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. A.J. Casson, the youngest member of the group, acted as a consultant to police, pointing out the fakes, and A.Y. Jackson testified at the hearing, replying a definitive no when asked whether he had painted multiple canvases that bore his name.

Some of these paintings were the work of other artists to which the dealers had added fake signatures and even, in the case of Thomson, a forged version of the stamp the estate used to certify his work. One artist, Thomas Chatfield, was so upset to discover that his paintings inspired by Tomson were being used in this way that he destroyed all his early work and became an abstractionist. But some of the fakes were copies of well-known works that MacGregor, a competent artist in his own right, had provided to Sharkey.

Casson and Jackson instantly identified the forgeries as such but how could the non-expert tell the difference? This is the one weak link in Dellandrea’s lively story: The author offers only passing assessments of how the real thing achieves its impact and how the copies fall short. Connoisseurship can be a tedious discipline – this brush stroke, that shading – but when it’s used to expose forgeries it becomes a lot more exciting, and this book could use more of it.

In its absence, readers will have to judge the quality of the paintings for themselves. Dellandrea has bought a collection of fakes he uncovered and the book is lavishly illustrated. Compared with the originals, MacGregor’s copies look dull and lack detail – the water in a stream has fewer highlights; fallen leaves feature fewer colours.

Did MacGregor, who had fallen on hard times in Toronto, know to what purpose his copies were put? He served as a witness for the prosecution but how could he not have guessed why Sharkey was giving him this assignment? Dellandrea’s sympathetic speculation on MacGregor’s attitude toward the fakery is the most rewarding aspect of his account – and in this instance the author does find the clues to his interesting conclusion by close examination of the paintings themselves.

This bit of Canadian history is not merely a curiosity: Hundreds of the Lewis and Sharkey fakes remain unaccounted for and may yet surface in the marketplace. Dellandrea’s final chapter heading says it all: Buyer beware.

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