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Book looks at counterfeit J.E.H. MacDonald sketches in VAG collection

Sketches by famous Group of Seven painter donated to Vancouver Art Gallery a decade ago turn out to be frauds

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Ten years ago, art conservationists Kate Helwig and Alison Douglas began an in-depth investigation into the authenticity of a series of sketches by Group of Seven co-founder JEH MacDonald that were donated to the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The research involved extensive detailed scientific analysis of 32 paintings and sketches, as well as close visual examinations of more than 150 works.

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That investigation (the sketches are fake) is the subject of the new book JEH MacDonald Up Close.

Postmedia reached out to Helwig, senior conservation scientist at the Canadian Institute of Conservation, and Douglas, curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and asked them a few questions about their fascinating research.

JEH MacDonald Up Close book cover
JEH MacDonald up close by Kate Helwig and Alison Douglas. Photo courtesy of Goose Lane /sun

Question: What are the main points that conservation experts consider when deciding the authenticity of a work?

Alison Douglas: We conservators do a thorough visual examination, each material in the painting’s stratigraphy is visually identified and details of its condition are noted. In the case of authentication, this type of detailed information is collected from many works of the artist’s oeuvre and trends and commonalities can be established.

Kate Helwig: Conservation scientists also perform chemical analyzes of painting materials to determine whether they are consistent with those used by the artist. If all materials are typical of the artist, this supports an attribution. If uncharacteristic materials are present, the result is less encouraging.

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Q: In the case of the JEH MacDonald sketches that the VAG has, what set off alarm bells?

Helwig: Several experts raised doubts about the authenticity of the oil sketches, mainly in relation to stylistic and formal aspects, as well as their unusual provenance. The VAG initiated several avenues of investigation, including sending the sketches to the CCI for scientific analysis. Based on the pigments used, we were able to definitively prove that MacDonald could not have painted the sketches. Several of the pigments were not available during his lifetime.

Q: Is fraud of this level common?

Douglas: I believe that as long as there is art, there will be fakes. Especially considering the value of works by renowned artists. Forgeries of works by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven began appearing on the market in the 1950s. The art of Cornelius Krieghoff has also been the subject of attacks by forgers and, more recently, by Norval Morrisseau.

Q: While scientific analysis is obviously a big part of the authentication process, what else was helpful in solving this mystery?

Helwig: In any authentication process such as VAG paint examination, there are three main aspects: knowledge, provenance investigation and finally scientific examination. The scientific examination is usually the last step. It is usually only used in cases where there are conflicting opinions about attribution or if the provenance is incomplete.

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Douglas: Although in this case, Kate’s analysis of pigments used outside of the artist’s life was fairly definitive, specific trends that Kate and I discovered through research on JEH also showed anomalies in VAG’s sketches, including things like the characteristics and dimensions of the cardboard.

Kate Helwig
Ten years ago, art conservationists Kate Helwig (seen here) and Alison Douglas began an in-depth investigation into the authenticity of a series of sketches by Group of Seven co-founder JEH MacDonald, which were donated to the Vancouver Art Gallery . The research has resulted in the new book JEH MacDonald Up Close. Photo by Government of Canada, Canadian Conservation Institute. /sun

Q: What can an art buyer do to protect themselves from being a victim of a scam?

Douglas: I think it’s always very important to do your homework when investing in a piece of art. Consult established resources and institutions, such as galleries, museums, or auction houses, to answer questions and guide you through the process.

Q: Who is this book for and what do you hope people take away from it?

Helwig: Our book will be very useful for conservators, curators and art collectors. It is written in an accessible format with lots of illustrations, so we think it will also appeal to anyone interested in the history of Canadian art and the Group of Seven painters.

Douglas: We also think it will be of interest to visual artists who are fascinated by the details of techniques and materials; This type of information is rarely published.

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Q: What is the best part of your job?

Helwig: I love the variety of questions that arise and the whole mystery-solving aspect of my work. I also feel very privileged to have the opportunity to help preserve cultural heritage in Canada. I really enjoy collaborating with colleagues who have different experiences and backgrounds.

Douglas: It is a privilege to be able to work with original art in the foreground. And look under the microscope at the mountains and valleys of texture and kaleidoscope of colors mixed to create artists’ works. Like Kate, she too feels a responsibility to care for and protect our Canadian cultural heritage. And, of course, working with my incredible colleagues and friends who create the Canadian conservation community.

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