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Journalists love when a great story falls into their laps, and that’s what seemed to happen on Jan. 13, 2015, when the Vancouver Art Gallery announced the donation of ten “newly discovered and never-before-displayed oil paintings” by Group of Seven co-founder J.E.H. MacDonald, and an amazing tale to go with them. The sketches, the gallery said, had been buried in the yard of the artist’s family home in Thornhill, Ont. for decades, placed there for safekeeping in 1931. A family friend, Max Merkur happened to be on site in 1974 when MacDonald’s son was digging them up. Mr. Merkur bought the ten sketches on the advice of another family friend, founding Group of Seven member, A.J. Casson, who told him they would be valuable one day.

A few things struck me as strange. One was the burial story: was that really the best way to protect precious paintings? To bury them in the ground? Even if they were wrapped and boxed up? I’m no art conservation expert, but it seemed odd. But here’s what really niggled at me: the bit about Mr. Casson saying the paintings would be valuable one day. Even before checking historical sales data for Group sketches, I knew that seemed off.

I was an elementary school student in 1974. It was around that time, maybe a year or two later, that I was first introduced to The Group of Seven during a field trip to what is now the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, north of Toronto.

If public schools were visiting a gallery where this art was not just being displayed, but was the whole point of the place, how was it possible that the sketches weren’t already valuable? The story went that Mr. Merkur paid $35 per sketch.

That part of the story should have given me pause. Well, it did. But there was a deadline to meet. And a respected institution, the Vancouver Art Gallery, would have done its due diligence, right?

Shortly after that story (and others; it was widely covered in the media) was published, I heard from someone in the art world. He said the sketches didn’t seem right. Start digging, he said.

Many people I contacted were reluctant to speak on the record, but some did. There was skepticism. But the VAG stuck to its story.

Two months after the announcement, we published an article about the doubts. That led to more questions being raised publicly, including by the respected Montreal gallerist Alan Klinkhoff, who had been asked to appraise the works ahead of the donation, and declined.

I won’t go through the whole long process here, but over the years, I repeatedly asked officials at the Vancouver Art Gallery about their authenticity, and specifically about a study I knew the Canadian Conservation Institute was conducting into that question in 2016. We now know the CCI reports, which determined the paintings were not made by MacDonald, were delivered to the VAG in August and September of 2016.

I asked VAG officials about those findings more than once after those dates. I asked CCI, which referred me back to the VAG. I filed Freedom of Information requests, but did not receive the results of that testing.

This mess was inherited by Anthony Kiendl when he became the VAG’s director and CEO in the summer of 2020 (the director who oversaw the donation, Kathleen Bartels, left in 2019). I asked him about the sketches too, and he promised he would answer the question when he could.

“I just can’t really understand why the delay in cleaning this thing up,” Mr. Klinkhoff told me on Thursday from Montreal, contrasting it to the “extraordinary urgency” for the appraisal in 2014.

Mr. Kiendl says the reason it took so long for his administration to reveal the truth was logistical: he was dealing with so much when he started – the pandemic and its fallout primarily – and wanted the person he hired as the gallery’s curator of Canadian art to take on the project and create an exhibition around it, where the gallery would come clean. What Mr. Kiendl didn’t do was cloak the truth in “we’re still looking into it” baloney, with a definitive report already having done so.

Richard Hill, who joined the VAG in 2021, curated the exhibition “J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden,” which opens Dec. 16. He stressed to me when he walked me through the findings – finally! – that the media had played an important role in this saga.

I know this is just a story about art – and that seems insignificant in light of all the world’s troubles. But it’s also about truth. And about the question of what our public institutions are up to, and what they’re doing with public funds. (In this case, a tax receipt for the donation was never issued; the process was halted when questions about the sketches’ authenticity were raised.)

A healthy, well-supported media can accomplish so much. It can bring buried truths up to the light.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misspelled Alan Klinkhoff's name. This version has been updated.

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