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Saanich police have seized millions of dollars’ worth of artwork, including three Emily Carr paintings, from a Vancouver Island art dealer who is subsequently facing charges of fraud and false pretenses.

The seizure – which took place over three days this month and stretched over three storage sites – involved over 1,000 pieces by 140 different artists, including paintings, etchings, prints and a sculpture. The dealer was arrested on April 21.

“For our department, monetarily speaking, this has got be the largest investigation we’ve done in the last 30 years,” said Markus Anastasiades, public information and communications officer at Saanich Police Department, in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Saanich police began the investigation on April 11 when a resident reported that they had entrusted a local dealer with four pieces of fine art for consignment and potential sale at an art gallery in Oak Bay, a municipality just outside Victoria. The pieces were three original Emily Carr paintings and one David Blackwood watercolour, both renowned Canadian artists.

The owner grew suspicious when the gallery closed down and attempts to contact the dealer went unanswered.

The following police investigation uncovered numerous other cases, involving several Vancouver Island-based victims who had consigned art to the dealer, after which the dealer had ceased contact with them, refused to return the paintings or failed to reimburse profits.

Saanich police are refusing to release the identity of the accused until charges relating to the seizure this month are sworn in court.

Publicly available court documents show that Winchester Galleries and art dealer Calvin Lucyshyn are the subject of several lawsuits by people alleging he took their art and did not compensate them.

Mr. Lucyshyn bought the gallery in 2019 from its two previous owners, a local couple who had successfully run it since 1994. He could not be reached for comment.

A civil suit filed in September by the original owners, Gunther Heinrich and Anthony Sam, claimed Mr. Lucyshyn had failed to pay the remaining $200,000 owed to them for the sale. He had also failed to pay the rent, leaving Mr. Heinrich and Mr. Sam liable. The total sum Mr. Lucyshyn owes the two is around $500,000.

But according to Mr. Sam and Mr. Heinrich’s lawyer, the hardest part of the ordeal isn’t the money.

“My clients have put their whole life and energy into making that gallery what it was. Unfortunately it seems like the new owner did not treat it the same way,” Nicholas M. Vaartnou said in an interview.

Other civil claims include one filed in November by George Pawliuk, where the plaintiff gave 10 paintings to Winchester Gallery. Mr. Lucyshyn sold one for over $40,000 but consistently failed to pay Mr. Pawliuk the money owed, the suit claimed.

A claim filed in March by Janet Baker also had Mr. Lucyshyn on the hook for taking paintings. This one involved three separate pieces, valued at a total of $46,000.

All three civil claims obtained default judgments against Mr. Lucyshyn, meaning he had not responded to the claims within the designated period. Ms. Baker obtained her case’s judgment on Friday.

However, Mr. Vaartnou and Eric Clausen, the lawyer for Ms. Baker, are worried that their clients will not see the money they are owed. According to a petition filed to the B.C. Supreme Court by the Bank of Nova Scotia, Mr. Lucyshyn’s mortgage is in default. He owes $674,199.

“Unfortunately it’s very difficult to recover on judgments in cases like this,” Mr. Clausen said in an interview. “But we’re certainly hoping that there’s some chance.”

The 1,000 pieces of artwork are currently being stored in a secure location, and the police are filing through each one with the hope of returning the pieces to their original owners.

“We know they have a sentimental value that is hard for us to comprehend. We will do our very best to reunite the owners with their work,” Mr. Anastasiades said.

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