Famed oil sketches by Group of Seven founder are fakes, Vancouver Art Gallery admits

Famed oil sketches by Group of Seven founder are fakes, Vancouver Art Gallery admits

Nine years after a controversial donation to the Vancouver Art Gallery, VAG officials are finally revealing the truth about the works. The 10 oil sketches, purported to be by Group of Seven co-founder J.E.H. MacDonald, are fakes.

The revelation comes in a new exhibition, which documents the debacle from the discovery and donation of the works through to the scientific proof they were phony. It includes coverage by The Globe and Mail, which first publicized the skepticism around their authenticity and continued to press gallery officials for answers for years.

“I really feel like actually the media is part of this story in terms of the questions that were raised and the way those things came out and to the public,” says the VAG’s curator of Canadian art, Richard Hill, who put together the exhibition “J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden,” which opens Saturday.

Open this photo in gallery:Famed oil sketches by Group of Seven founder are fakes, Vancouver Art Gallery admits

Richard Hill is the VAG’s Canadian art curator.Tijana Martin/ The Globe and Mail

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J.E.H. MacDonald, shown in 1913, was a member of the Group of Seven who died in 1932.

The inauthenticity of the sketches was confirmed by scientific analysis conducted by the Canadian Conservation Institute in 2016.

In a video created for the exhibit, Ian Thom, the senior curator who brought the works into the gallery, finally publicly addresses what happened.

“When it first started, I thought this is one of the great experiences of my life. And then it just got worse and worse and worse,” says Mr. Thom, who retired from the gallery in 2018. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life, frankly.” (Mr. Thom declined an interview request from The Globe this week.)

Even visual analysis conducted before the CCI’s scientific examination raised what current VAG officials acknowledge were red flags, as did a handwriting analysis by a forensic expert. The sketches had purportedly been authenticated on the back by MacDonald’s son, Thoreau, as well as fellow Group of Seven member A.J. Casson.

Among the issues identified: Thoreau’s last name is misspelled three different ways; board sizes and types that were inconsistent with MacDonald’s usual materials; and sketches that too closely resembled the finished paintings, as if they were copies of those works, rather than preparatory sketches for them – even when known sketches elsewhere demonstrated that the finished paintings were composites of more than one sketch.

“It’s totally erroneous to call them ‘sketches for.’ They’re copies after,” says Charles Hill, retired National Gallery of Canada curator of Canadian art, in the exhibition video. A leading expert in the Group of Seven, Mr. Hill was brought in by the VAG in 2015 to examine the works after doubts arose about their authenticity. Extremely familiar with MacDonald’s work and having access to many originals (rather than photographic reproductions), Mr. Hill compared known paintings by the artist with the donated sketches.

“I looked at them and said: ‘It’s not by the same artist.’ ”

Verifying that the sketches were fake took careful analysis of how they were made and from what materials. One display at the VAG points out discrepancies in the names written on the back. Another highlights pages from The Globe and Mail’s coverage of the controversy around the sketches.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The story, when revealed by the VAG in 2015, was “incredible,” as Kathleen Bartels, the gallery’s then-director, stated in a news release announcing the gift. Indeed.

The sketches, the VAG said, had been buried in 1931 by J.E.H. and Thoreau MacDonald for safekeeping before J.E.H. travelled to Barbados for health reasons. Wrapped in cellophane and tar paper, they were buried in boxes in the backyard on the family property north of Toronto for more than 40 years. They were unearthed in 1974, in the presence of a family friend, Max Merkur. According to the story, Mr. Casson advised Mr. Merkur to buy the sketches, saying they would be valuable one day. (MacDonald sketched outdoors on small panels using oil paint.)

After Mr. Merkur’s widow Reta died in 2012, their son Ephraim (Ephry) discovered the sketches in the basement of the family home. The donation to the VAG was made by him and his brother, Melvin Merkur.

“We were intrigued by these previously unknown paintings. Our family believed that they may be significant,” Melvin’s son, Mark Merkur, told The Globe in a family statement on Wednesday.

The works came to Mr. Thom’s attention through a Hamilton-based dealer, Janet McNaught of the Arctic Experience McNaught Gallery. He was invited to look at a large collection amassed by Max Merkur and make a selection for donation to the VAG. Mr. Thom chose 10 sketches purported to be by MacDonald.

He then brought in another Group of Seven expert, University of Toronto art professor Dennis Reid, who concurred with Mr. Thom’s assessment that they were genuine. (Mr. Reid died in April.)

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Ian Thom, shown in a video display at the VAG’s new exhibit, was the senior curator who brought the supposed MacDonald sketches to the gallery.Tijana Martin/ The Globe and Mail

The VAG announced the donation in January, 2015, with great fanfare, promising an exhibition that fall to display the “newly discovered and never-before-displayed oil paintings.”

But at a private showing at the gallery, questions arose immediately. “When I walked in and saw those paintings, my instincts just said, ‘Whoa,’ ” Ken Macdonald, an art dealer and consultant, told The Globe for a March, 2015 article.

After skepticism was raised, the VAG sought help from other experts. First, it brought in Charles Hill (no relation to Richard Hill). The circumstances of the discovery itself seemed strange to him. To begin with, none of these sketches had even been referenced in any of the literature about MacDonald’s work. Also, the burial story was implausible. Mice would have been terribly destructive, as would have thawing and freezing of the ground. And yet the sketches were pristine. “This raised a lot of alarm bells,” says Charles Hill in the video.

There were other red flags: hotter colour palettes; the appearance of people in the sketches, which MacDonald was known to add in for the final canvas. And other instances where the purported sketches looked more like copies of the finished product.

For instance, the 1916 painting The Elements is known to have been composed from two different sketches: one done in the Laurentians for the sky; and another done on Georgian Bay for the trees, rocks and water. But the donated sketch looked like the final painting.

“It’s a sketch of a scene that never existed,” said Richard Hill in an interview at the VAG, as he explained the findings.

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Art-history experts found that one of the VAG artworks, Sketch from The Elements, didn’t add up with what the artist likely saw in the field.Rachel Topham/Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery

The VAG also brought in a forensic-documents expert to conduct handwriting analysis on the inscriptions of the back of each work. Dan C. Purdy, retired chief scientist from the RCMP forensic laboratories (who has since died), reported that only one inscription was a “strong possibility” to be written by the person named.

But while visual analysis can point to a likely answer, it cannot provide a definitive one. For that, science was required.

CCI, a Canadian Heritage agency, performs scientific examinations for museums and galleries.

Fortuitously, in the midst of this, CCI was working with the McMichael Canadian Art Collection on a major analysis of MacDonald’s work. The project, led by CCI conservation scientist Kate Helwig and McMichael conservator Alison Douglas, is documented in their forthcoming book J.E.H. MacDonald Up Close: The Artist’s Materials and Techniques.

Four of the sketches were sent to CCI in Ottawa for a detailed analysis in 2016.

In a visual inspection, several issues were noted, including inconsistencies in the size, thickness and colour of the board compared with what MacDonald was using at that stage in his career. “That did strike me right away,” said Ms. Helwig, in an interview.

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Kathleen Bartels, then the VAG’s director, looks at the sketches in 2015, including Sketch from The Tangled Garden, far left.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Then analysis was undertaken that included both conventional and technical photography. That showed a very detailed underdrawing, probably in pencil, for the purported sketch for The Tangled Garden, which was unusual for MacDonald. In its examination of 160 of MacDonald’s well-attributed sketches, CCI had seen very little evidence of preliminary sketch lines in his work.

But it was the detailed analysis of microscopic bits of the paint that led to the definitive answer. Samples of white paint removed from a flower and dark green paint from a leaf in that sketch revealed that neither was available when MacDonald, who died in 1932, was alive. CCI was careful to take original material from the painting (as opposed to paint that could have been added during a restoration later).

An examination of the other six sketches followed a few weeks later.

CCI determined that eight of the 10 sketches contained pigments not available during MacDonald’s lifetime. And that the other two contained pigments that were not yet available when the paintings they were supposed to be sketches for were made.

“That really does make it conclusive,” says Richard Hill. “In a way, you know, it’s a relief. It’s disappointing, obviously. God, I really wish we had 10 J.E.H. MacDonald sketches.”

There has been an extensive turnover of executive staff at the VAG since the acquisition and 2015 announcement.

Anthony Kiendl inherited this issue when he joined the gallery in 2020, ultimately replacing Ms. Bartels, who left in 2019. “I wouldn’t say I feel disappointed because I feel the facts are the facts and our job is to present them to the best of our ability,” he says.

He stresses that applications for tax receipts for the donations under the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board process were halted when questions arose about the authenticity, so none were issued. Those tax receipts would have likely been worth millions.

“There’s no financial fraud,” says Mr. Kiendl. “It’s a bit of an embarrassment, I guess.”

But in addition to making the mistake to begin with, the gallery has concealed the truth about the disputed works for years. The Charles Hill report was submitted in October, 2015. The forensic handwriting analysis in January, 2016. The VAG received two reports from CCI about the works in 2016 – one in August, a second in September – both demonstrating the definitive inauthenticity of the works.

Despite several inquiries from The Globe in the years since, the gallery repeatedly refused to disclose the findings, saying further study was being done.

“We know there are varying opinions about the authorship of some of the J.E.H. MacDonald paintings that the gallery acquired, and these works have been and will continue to be the subject of further study and research,” Ms. Bartels told me in December, 2017.

Ms. Bartels, now executive director and CEO at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art, did not respond to interview requests this week.

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Kathleen Bartels in 2020, when she had joined Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art as its new director.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Kiendl says he could not address the matter personally when he started at the gallery, given everything else that was going on – a pandemic, an exodus of key staff and the planned construction of a new facility.

“I didn’t have a chief curator. I didn’t have a historical curator. We were just trying to keep the doors open. And it’s such a complicated project,” he said in an interview.

“When I arrived, I knew we would have to deal with this issue. My intention was to do it through a public format like an exhibition,” says Mr. Kiendl, who points out that the usual lead time to create an exhibition is two to three years.

Once Richard Hill was hired by the VAG in early 2021, the file was handed to him, with the idea that he would examine and interpret the results and create a show about this.

In the statement, Mark Merkur said the family was as keen as anyone to see the outcome of the scientific analysis. “When questions were raised about authorship, we supported all efforts to study them further.”

He said the family has no regrets and values the works on their own merit, irrespective of who made them.

Attempts to reach Ms. McNaught were not successful.

Ms. Helwig says she has thought about what MacDonald would make of all of this. “He might wonder why we’re spending so much time picking at his paintings, but honestly, I hope he would be pleased that they were getting the attention that they deserve. If he were alive, of course we could just ask him.”

The authenticity of the sketches no longer in question, the big mystery now is: Who made them?

And how did they get to the point where they were identified as being by MacDonald and donated to a major art institution – a donation that, if the works’ authenticity had not been questioned, would have come with a valuable tax write-off?

Were the sketches the work of a hobbyist, who was copying MacDonald’s paintings, working from reproductions? And then misunderstood by someone who found them? If so, how does that explain the authentication notes on the back, deemed inauthentic by the forensic handwriting expert?

These important questions are beyond the purview of the CCI or the VAG.

“I have no idea how that happened. I don’t know how to research that. They did not teach that in art history class,” says Richard Hill.

In the exhibition video, Charles Hill states that there is reason to believe they were made by the same person.

If the gallery has been stubbornly opaque in refusing to share these results for years after being aware of them, this exhibition goes out of its way to be exceedingly transparent. It walks visitors through the whole process, from that first celebratory – and erroneous – media release to the ultimate conclusion, and various findings along the way – as well as the at times embarrassing media coverage.

“Given the cards we were dealt, we’re trying to respond responsibly and ethically,” says Mr. Kiendl.

“Museums traditionally like to be authorities and we like to present accurate information and we do our best,” he added. “But I guess, from time to time, that doesn’t always work out the way you want it to.”

For nine years, the works have been referred to as sketches attributed to J.E.H. MacDonald. They have new titles now, beginning with “Sketch after” rather than “Sketch for.” They also have new attributions: artist unknown.

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