Brush with Infamy
A forgotten artist, a 50-year-old forgery and my unlikely journey into the country’s biggest art fraud case
In September 2016, a Toronto auction house offered one of its periodic online auctions of art. The pieces were Canadian (mainly), of reasonable quality (generally) and would go to the highest bidder (always). Descriptions of each painting included the name of the artist, title of the work (perhaps, in some cases, the imaginative creation of the auction staff) and its provenance, if known, e.g., “private collection, Ottawa.”
This particular offering of several hundred works included one large painting described as “Canadian School, 1930s, Study for Spring Thaw, signed Clarence A. Gagnon, dated 1909 on the stretcher. Estimate $700–$1000.” The painting had apparent age, character, style and a pleasant familiarity, but curiously bore no resemblance to Gagnon’s Spring Thaw or to any other authenticated work of Clarence A. Gagnon (1881–1942).
The authentic and finished Spring Thaw, by Gagnon, hangs in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1938, noted art scholar Albert H. Robson wrote of this piece: “The lyrical, jewel-like quality of Gagnon’s later paintings is well illustrated in this charming picture of a small Quebec Village set in the Laurentian Hills.”
The substantial 61- by 51-centimetre painting being offered at auction last year had no “small Quebec Village” and nothing “lyrical or jewel-like” about it, but was rather a blend of motifs from Lawren Harris, notably his iconic Above Lake Superior, with its hills and foreground trees, a bit of A.Y. Jackson with the barren trees, and another dollop of style from a member or two of the Group of Seven. That, in and of itself, was a curiosity given that, although Gagnon was a contemporary of the group, his work was of a very different style.
Prior to the online auction, an in-person viewing of the painting by this writer revealed that someone had left a fascinating bit of paper tucked in the back of the stretcher offering a critique of the work.
The note read:
Attributed to Gagnon—Trees
– Looks unfinished, but why would it be signed if it were unfinished?
– Doesn’t look like anything that Gagnon was executing in 1909
– Looks more 1920s in style
– Cannot make out inscription on frame reverse
– Would not uphold the attribution
– Flatness, the screen effect was more something done by Thomson and the Gof7
– “Study for Spring…” —inscription—Would say in the manner of the Group of Seven
The painting sold at auction for $1,600 and I bought it. You might ask why anyone would pay that much for an obviously suspect painting. The answer to that fair question begins with the fact that I already owned a miniature painting that was hauntingly similar to the painting at auction, if not a study for the painting at auction. And mine was not painted by Clarence A. Gagnon. How I came to own this miniature “twin” requires a digression, a brief tale of an otherwise normal Saturday the previous May when a Toronto art dealer called me to say that he had just purchased a curious box of handwritten papers, newspaper clippings, artist’s sketches, and some finished and some unfinished paintings. The artist, the author of the papers, was unknown to the dealer but he thought it was the sort of thing that I, as a collector of Canadian art, might find of interest. With the box was one large painting that appeared from its style to have been done in the 1920s or ’30s, and along with the large painting was one tiny 12.7- by 12.7-centimetre almost exact study of the “Gagnon” painting I bought at auction. The papers and the paintings were the work of one William Firth MacGregor, and the box contained personal papers and several newspaper clippings about what is known but largely forgotten even in art circles as the Canadian Art Fraud Case of 1962 to 1964, in which this MacGregor played a part as a central witness.
The simple explanation, then, for my auction purchase was that this new painting was a forgery, a direct link to my little painting, and thus to William Firth MacGregor.
In late 1962 the police knocked on William Firth MacGregor’s door at 565 Church Street in Toronto. The Victorian building was a rooming house that at the time some might have regarded as a bit down on its luck. But if you were a struggling artist with barely enough money for food, you would probably have considered it a reasonable location to hang your hat and store your belongings.
MacGregor, then in his late sixties, was a painter of some talent, to which his surviving works attest, but not a commercially successful artist. He painted, and occasionally he was able to sell a painting for a few dollars to live and to eat.
It was Sergeant John Ross of the Ontario Provincial Police Anti-Rackets Branch who knocked on MacGregor’s door. According to the OPP archives, the branch had been formed in June 1960, in response to a public demand for the government to do something about criminal rackets. Having a background in white-collar crime studies, James L. Erskine, then an inspector in the Criminal Investigations Branch, was selected to coordinate the organization of the anti-rackets squad. Erskine, who probably thought he was going to spend his time pursuing gangsters and racketeers, instead found himself immersed in the world of Canadian art. His immersion was the result of an intervention by J. Russell Harper, curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada who, in November 1962, asked the force to investigate a “flood” of Canadian art forgeries of the works of well-known painters including members of the Group of Seven. Harper had observed many suspect pieces being offered at auction or brought to the National Gallery for authentication.
“The first thing I did,” said Erskine, as reported in an article in Weekend magazine at the time, “was to spend days studying everything I could find on Canadian art.” Then, flanked by Sergeant Ross, and with A.J. Casson, the youngest living member of the famed Group of Seven, as an advisor, Erskine set out on the trail of the fake paintings. This trail led to Toronto auctioneer Ben Ward-Price, who had sold many pieces of art on behalf of a Toronto dealer, Leslie W. Lewis, owner of the Haynes Art Gallery in Toronto. Lewis, in turn was connected to a former employee and now an art dealer in his own right, one Neil Sharkey, who had been faking works with the signatures of famous Canadian artists.
When police arrived at the Haynes Gallery with a search warrant, Lewis apparently could not understand what all the trouble was about. Then 63 years old, he had been an art dealer for at least two decades and this was the first time that there had ever been any problems. He said, in his view, the sales were all in a day’s work and a case of buyer beware. While the venerable Dominion and Walter Klinkhoff galleries in Montreal, say, or the Roberts Gallery in Toronto, or the Art Emporium in Vancouver sold art of established provenance and quality, the Haynes Gallery was apparently the sort of place where one took one’s chances in pursuit of a bargain. The seized inventory of suspect art, which was exhibited at the subsequent trial, came either from Lewis’s gallery directly or was sold through the Ward-Price auction house and numbered well over a hundred paintings.
At Harper’s instigation, the National Gallery of Canada had become immersed in what became, at the time, Canada’s most famous art fraud case. National Gallery scientist Nathan Stolow, who had established the Conservation and Scientific Research Division of the gallery in 1957, served as the technical expert on the case. Stolow was a new brand of art expert, as familiar with chemistry and x-ray analysis as he was with colour, technique and brush strokes. During the summers, his laboratory at the National Gallery employed chemistry students from the University of Ottawa and Carleton University who carried out such exotic tasks as researching pigments with the use of x-ray diffraction. His work on the Canadian art fraud case relied on his expertise in both art and science.
Reflecting on the case in an article in the Journal of the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property in 2012, Marion H. Barclay, former chief of the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory at the National Gallery, said that Stolow examined dozens of pieces, directing his focus toward “the supports, the signatures, signs of artificial aging, and comparison of brush strokes with those in authenticated works.”
The investigation and subsequent seizure of the fraudulent art led to a fascinating conference in Ottawa sometime in 1962 involving Stolow, Inspector Erskine and the Crown prosecutor in the case, E. Patrick Hartt, QC. The purpose of the gathering was to compare the scientific results with Erskine’s findings. “Of great interest” to the participants, Stolow later wrote, “were two panel paintings promoted as by [James Wilson] Morrice and [Maurice] Cullen which … were cut from the same slab of pinewood and bore matching grain patterns, paint and brush qualities, as well as signature styles. This was borne out by raking light, by x-ray and infrared.”
As a result of Erskine’s investigative work and Stolow’s science, and notwithstanding Lewis’s protestations of caveat emptor and observations on “the nature of a day’s work,” Lewis was charged with fraud. Remarkably Ben Ward-Price, the auctioneer, was not charged as party to the fraud, although it was reported in an article of the day by Bill Brown, titled “This Art Was a Crime,” that he had been doing business with Lewis as an art dealer since 1945, and sold more than 500 paintings a year for him. Ward-Price, an unusual figure in the art market—having joined his family’s Ward-Price auction firm “after several adventurous years spent in forest lumbering, arctic flying and prospecting,” according to a history of the firm called The Book of Auctions—was quoted in Brown’s article as saying that he “never had any reason to question the authenticity of the paintings.”
Brown’s staggering account of Lewis’s auction activities would indicate that the magnitude of the fraud was not limited to the 100 or so paintings seized during the art fraud case, but rather involved potentially thousands of fake paintings sold at auction over a lengthy period. Harper’s observation was correct. There was a “flood” of fake paintings and it was very deep and very wide. In Stolow’s words, the fraud case had “few if any North American counterparts.”
The man the OPP anti-rackets officer went to see that fateful day, in trying to piece together the facts and to establish the details of the trail of art, must have been a very confused and troubled William Firth MacGregor. The OPP investigation of Lewis and his gallery had revealed him as one of the sources of the art that had been subsequently altered and faked, a connection discovered when Lewis’s associate Neil Sharkey produced receipts of small sums paid to MacGregor for his paintings. Before long MacGregor would become a star witness in the most famous art fraud trial of its time. In news coverage he was described as “a frail artist who said he was practically penniless.”
So who was William Firth MacGregor, or Willie, as he was known to friends? We know that his life began on the Orkney Islands of Scotland in 1896 and that in late 1925 he arrived in Canada no doubt filled with optimism about prospects in the New World and armed with an education at both the Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy. He took the highest award in drawing at the academy, and his papers record his participation as an exhibitor in the 62nd annual exhibition at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in 1923.
He seemed to find some early success in Canada, too, as both he and his brother Charles, a talented portrait painter, exhibited in the 1925 Ontario Society of Artists annual exhibition. The exhibition featured works by Laura Muntz Lyall, J.E.H. MacDonald and other artists who went on to broad acceptance and fame. MacGregor’s two paintings Meditation and Memories were offered for sale at $250 and $200 respectively (worth up to $3,500 in today’s terms).
Willie and his Edinburgh Art College classmate J.W.G. “Jock” Macdonald soon found work teaching at the recently established Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts. Frederick Horsman Varley of Group of Seven fame joined the staff the same year. Macdonald, who was not yet a painter, was in charge of design and crafts, Varley handled drawing and painting, and MacGregor and W.P. Weston were the drawing instructors. In 1933, Macdonald and Varley left the school in protest over the 60 percent reduction in the instructors’ salaries resulting from the Great Depression, and started a new school. By this time MacGregor had already left for a job teaching art in Ottawa.
There MacGregor continued to paint and exhibit. His painting Red Mountain was shown in the 1930 Annual Exhibition of Canadian Art at the National Gallery alongside works by Emily Carr, F.S. Coburn, A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer, artists who were achieving recognition and success. His inclusion in the show did not make him a star, notes the former National Gallery curator Charles C. Hill, one of Canada’s leading authorities on Canadian art in the 1930s. “Art Society and National Gallery exhibitions included a broad range of work, some good, some indifferent and some bad,” he adds. “These were juried shows, not curatorially selected to show only the best.”
But it is evidence that long before an entrepreneurial art dealer passed off his paintings as the work of more prominent artists, Willie’s life and work seemed to be entwined with those of the stars. In the capital, Willie worked at the Ottawa Art Association along with the artist Goodridge Roberts. Goodridge Roberts: A Retrospective Exhibition, published by the National Gallery of Canada in 1969, records that the two set up a small school for a dozen or so students in Wakefield, Quebec, in a cottage where they also lived:
The venture could not flourish, however, given the two temperaments. McGregor [sic] was an unpredictable man, who had never fully recovered from the effects of shellshock in the war more than a decade before and who used to vanish, to get away from his partner and the pupils, and lie in the grass gazing at the sky.
Another version of the same story, written by Carleton University professor Andrew M. Johnston and published in volume 39 of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society’s publication Up the Gatineau!, provided added colour. Johnston wrote:
Conditions were rough. They had rented a rundown house, and students were quickly disillusioned once they arrived. There was only one room for sleeping, and the men and women were separated by a mere curtain. Most of the cooking was done by Willie, a small man whose thick glasses concealed his innocent blue eyes. The whole venture came undone when Goody, who was quite good looking, and Willie, who was not, fell in love with the same female student and had a fight on the beach by the Gatineau River.
The sources of most information on the Gatineau Summer School of Painting are biographies of Goodridge Roberts, i.e., the star. Philip Dombowsky, the remarkable archivist of the National Gallery of Canada, uncovered for me papers that lead to a somewhat different conclusion. The Gatineau school seems to have been Willie’s attempt to replicate the Vancouver School. The Gatineau school’s director was not Roberts, but MacGregor.
Following the Ottawa period MacGregor spent time in and around Toronto, where he was no longer trying to sell paintings for hundreds of dollars but offering his works for a few dollars each. There is scant record of his career in the 1940s and ’50s other than some paintings associated with the Brydon family of Brampton, who owned cottages on Lake Bernard near Sundridge, Ontario, where Willie painted and spent some time. A few of his paintings were included in a 1946 exhibition alongside Doris McCarthy and Frank Panabaker.
By the late 1950s, an impoverished MacGregor was living in that Church Street rooming house and apparently encountered an enterprising art shop owner with the apt name of Neil Sharkey. The encounter set in motion Willie’s unplanned place in the Canadian Art Fraud Case of 1962 to 1964.
At the trial, Willie, a witness for the Crown led by special prosecutor E. Patrick Hartt, testified that he had painted numerous unsigned oil reproductions of the work of prominent Canadian artists for between $4 and $10 apiece for Sharkey, one of the two Toronto art dealers charged with defrauding the public in art sales. (The other was Leslie Lewis.) Sharkey had purchased from MacGregor some of his own artistic creations as well.
The police search of Lewis’s gallery had turned up cancelled cheques, including one for $4,150 paid to Sharkey and his Scottish Art Gallery on Yonge Street. Sharkey had worked for Lewis as a picture cleaner and framer before opening his own gallery. In need of money, he began to get ideas when he was hanging some of Lewis’s pictures prior to one of Ward-Price’s auctions. “I noticed that a large number of them were fakes—and bad ones,” Sharkey stated in court. “I felt I could do better ones.” Without knowing it, Willie was to become the source of the “better ones.” At the trial Willie testified that Sharkey supplied him with prints and illustrated books from which he made his oil reproductions. “I thought he was trying to help me out,” said Willie. “I was living on practically nothing … I thought it was on the level.” His copies and some of his own works were later sold for several hundred dollars each after the fake signatures of famous artists were applied by Sharkey. More than 50 pages of court transcripts record Willie’s testimony. Painting after painting was shown to him and he was asked if he recognized each piece. “This is my own picture, and I believe it went for—I don’t know—some big figure. But I got—maybe, approximately—around three or four dollars for it, including the other ones—twenty dollars for four pictures.” The Crown prosecutor would then say, “I produce to you another painting, Mr. MacGregor, exhibit number 3, our identification number 102, ‘Evening, North Shore, Clarence A. Gagnon,’ with the signature ‘Clarence A. Gagnon’ in the lower left-hand corner. Could you identify that to His Worship?”
Again and again Willie would reply, “That’s my own work, done up by Six Mile Lake, off Six Mile Lake a bit. Long Lake comes up there. I did that one spring with another friend. I did that and sold it to him [Sharkey]. That was one of the four I sold him for twenty dollars, twenty dollars for the four. And I did not put any name at all there. I might have had my own name somewhere, but it was—I’m lackadaisical about putting signatures … Anyway, I never signed that name.”
His practice would not have been anomalous. Willie was copying paintings out of a book to make a few dollars to eat. This was not a moment of artistic pride. As a talented contemporary artist told me recently that if an artist is not proud of his or her work, there is little motivation to put one’s signature on the work.
Admitted as evidence in the trial were more than 30 paintings by MacGregor, all variously bearing the fake signatures of Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald, J.W. Morrice, David Milne or Arthur Lismer, which had been added by Neil Sharkey. Nor was MacGregor the only artist elevated by the fakery of Sharkey to fetch high prices at auction. Eighteen other paintings were admitted to evidence being the work of an 80-year-old Montreal artist, Rita Mount. Her paintings were her own original works and had been sold to Lewis for an average price of $10. Ward-Price, the auctioneer, testified that one painting by Mount, when framed and labelled as the work of J.E.H. MacDonald, had fetched $1,200.
Lewis and Sharkey were convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison, Sharkey for one year and Lewis for two years less a day. Willie was described by Magistrate Graham as “a totally innocent party to—or victim of—fraud.”
The unlikely forensic dream team that uncovered the fraud went on to various successes. Stolow went on the road across Canada lecturing on fraudulent art. In 1966, E. Patrick Hartt, aged 40, was appointed to the Supreme Court of Ontario. Inspector Erskine went back to chasing more conventional bad guys and in 1981 became commissioner of the OPP. At a tribute dinner in Toronto in 1986, A.J. Casson was presented with a scroll by Ontario’s solicitor general Roy McMurtry and former premier Bill Davis that noted that his contributions had “enabled law enforcement officers to expose forgery and fraud.”
As for Willie, absent of the art fraud case few would have heard of him. Yet tucked away in the dusty corners of Canadian history and in Willie’s recently discovered papers are remnants of the record of a remarkable life. His time in Vancouver in the late 1930s is a glimpse into an electrifying moment in Canadian art and notable less for his own artistic work than for his advocacy on behalf of other artists. In 1933 he wrote a piece for the National Gallery of Canada that may or may not have been published. Entitled “Canada and Its Art, Through the Eyes of an Immigrant Artist,” the essay tells of MacGregor’s first exposure to the art of the “Seven Group” (as he called them), viewed at exhibition at The Grange in Toronto:
There, crammed as liberally as it was humanly possible, upon large canvases seeming to stagger under the weight of the artist’s paint, in clamoring bursting attempt to portray the magnificence and magnitude of their land … I stood with eyes open wide. I had never seen anything like it before. That was my first real meeting with Canada … I’m trying my best to fall in line with the youthful step of art in this great young country of Canada.
In 1937, MacGregor wrote to H.O. McCurry, then assistant director of the National Gallery of Canada, to confidentially plead the case of his friend Jock Macdonald. His poignant letter begins with considerable force: “J.W.G Macdonald’s left lung has collapsed. He is in a hell of a way.” Willie pleads with McCurry to step in and salvage both man and career. He says of Macdonald: “The man is now fully wedded to painting, giving up all thought of teaching as a career as formerly. Varley in the main got him that way.” MacGregor reminds McCurry that he (McCurry) had helped Varley “out of a hole” and argues that “one fool of an artist is as deserving as another!” His advice to McCurry:
Buy one of his paintings (a large one) for a start—ready cash is received first. Get him packed off east by next fall out of this stodgy west. You could get him a rail pass. Get him once more settled down to teaching for a time (and you know he is a crack-a-jack at that), either in Montreal or Toronto. Otherwise he is a goner.
Of himself, Willie says in the letter to McCurry, “Am the same old Gregor—doing not much these days, but for ever mixed up in the human side of things.” He adds a telling postscript that could be out of a Dickens novel, “My name you must of course keep from Macdonald, in any transaction the outcome of this letter. Whilst we are quite friendly he is stuffed up with pride.”
As for the painting I bought at auction, it is almost certainly the work of MacGregor, faked by Sharkey to be a Gagnon in the 1960s. It sits in my home now beside that small 5 by 5 oil on board—the exact miniature that I found in the late William Firth MacGregor’s effects in 2016, where it had been undisturbed since Willie’s death in 1979. Remarkably, the fake “Gagnon,” apparently a total Willie creation, had some four decades prior to the 2016 Toronto auction sale been part of the “travelling exhibition” of fraudulent art mounted by Nathan Stolow long after the art fraud trial. The photographic records of this exhibition are in the archives of the National Gallery of Canada. How this painting travelled through time and landed at a public auction in 2016 remains a total mystery.
When advised of the existence of the MacGregor study and the link to the Canadian art fraud case, the auction house revised its listing to read: “Canadian School (Circa 1930s) Study for Spring Thaw, Oil on Canvas (After Lawren Harris’s ‘Above Lake Superior’) Bears Fake Signature ‘Clarence A. Gagnon’ Lower Left and Verso to stretcher.”
The artist whose life was connected by a very thin bit of artistic twine with that of Fred Varley, Jock Macdonald, Goodridge Roberts and the like, who worked alongside these “stars,” faded from the cultural landscape with scarcely a mention. MacGregor died at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto in December 1979, aged 84, penniless and almost forgotten.
Although one can only wonder how many living room and dining room walls around the country are still graced by that beloved “Thomson” or “Jackson” or “Gagnon” proudly handed down by parents or grandparents, bought at auction for a terrific bargain price almost 60 years ago, and quite possibly the work of William Firth MacGregor.