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New book revisits 1960s art fraud that stained Canada’s art scene with forgeries

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It was just another rainy Saturday when art historian Jon S. Dellandrea received a phone call from a Toronto art dealer about a box of “mysterious things at the edge of the art world.”

“Here’s this box full of papers and personal writing and clippings from the newspapers, and [a] person’s death certificate and articles from describing the art fraud case — and [I’ve] not the foggiest clue who this person was.,” he told The Current guest host Mark Kelley.

Dellandrea initially turned the box down, but was convinced by his wife to take the project on.

That decision led him down a path to investigate a painter named William Firth MacGregor and his forgeries of paintings by Group of Seven artists, like A.Y. Jackson, and others, that, in part, defined the great Canadian art fraud case of the 1960s.

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First identified by Russell Harper, the National Gallery of Canada’s chief curator of Canadian art, the case captured national media attention from 1962 to 1964.

It culminated in a dramatic Toronto court case that saw Haynes Art Gallery owner Leslie W. Lewis and art dealer Neil Sharkey convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison.

A painting surrounded by a gold frame.
Among the forgeries were also pieces imitating painter Tom Thomson’s work, painted by Thomas Chatfield. (Collection of Jon S. Dellandrea)

Sixty years later, that case is the subject of Dellandrea’s latest book, The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven & Tom Thomson Forgeries.

Many of the forgeries are likely still hanging on someone’s wall today, but their current whereabouts are unknown, Dellandrea said.

“[The forgeries] totally undermined the art market,” he said. “You have no confidence that the A.Y. Jackson painting that you just took your hard-saved money and bought for $1,000 was worth $1,000 or was worth the $20 that the frame cost.”

An unfortunate painter

Although Dellandrea didn’t know who MacGregor was at the time, he found that the painter was one of the key characters in this.

He had immigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1925, and was a “brilliantly trained artist,” according to Dellandrea, and worked at a Vancouver school with Group of Seven member Fred Varley for a period of time.

Dellandrea said he disappeared for a few decades after his initial success, but re-emerged in the 1960s by creating knock-off pieces for an art dealer named Neil Sharkey.

“He thought [they] were just being given away or sold as souvenirs or something,” Dellandrea said. “Then he finds himself at the centre of the art fraud.”

Sharkey had framed some of MacGregor’s earlier original works before the scheme. He would bring the unassuming MacGregor books like A.Y. Jackson’s A Painter’s Country, and get him to make “wonderful little copies of the paintings,” said Dellandrea.

Sharkey would then dress them up with fancy frames and brass plaques, “rub a little dirt on the back to make them look older, and then run them through auction at board price,” he added.

Jon Dellandrea stands at an angle, looking at the camera from the left side of his body.
Jon Dellandrea is the author of the new book, The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven & Tom Thomson Forgeries. (Doug Nicholson)

MacGregor didn’t get a fair share either. Dellandrea said Sharkey paid MacGregor $5 for each copy, while the forgery would sell anywhere between $950 and $1,500 at auctions.

The forger was ultimately just a witness in the case. But if there was any consolation, some of the painters he copied saw his forgeries as exceptional work.

“So Jackson, on the stand, seeing one painting after another, he would say, ‘That’s awful. I would never would have painted that, that’s disgusting. Then those little ones over there, those are rather good,'” Dellandrea said.

“Those were the work of William Firth MacGregor.”

The Casson tapes

At the other end of the case were inspector James Erskine and A.J. Casson, the youngest living member of the Group of Seven.

Dellandrea said there’s first-hand evidence of how they got along together, through audio cassette tapes unearthed by Casson’s daughter.

“This was an oral history recollection by Casson of his entire life, and about six of these tapes were specifically about the art fraud,” he said.

A man enters leaves the courtroom, shadowed by another man behind him.
William Firth MacGregor, shadowed by Insp. James Erskine, arrives at a Toronto courthouse to give his evidence during the Canadian art fraud case. (York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections/Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC61028.)

In one tape recorded at a dinner party, Erskine tells Casson, their wives and Casson’s artist friend Alan Collier that “he knew absolutely nothing” about the case, and was pointed in the direction of Casson.

The two soon became fast friends. While Erskine, a future commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, did the sleuthing, Casson helped identify forgeries of paintings belonging to him and other Group of Seven members.

“I went looking for an expert, and I obtained a list of possible experts, and he was head and shoulders over the other persons I considered,” Erskine said of Casson, in a 1979 interview with The Fifth Estate.

In the end, dozens of paintings were used in the trial as evidence, including several made by MacGregor, and many of the paintings seized ended up in Erskine’s basement for a time.

“That was the tip of the iceberg because Casson, in the tape, said that one night, Erskine got a call from the attorney general who’s had enough [of the inspector’s work],” Dallendrea said.

“According to Casson, Erskine was quote unquote mad as hops, and Casson said ‘We could have had 500 paintings in that courtroom rather than the hundreds that were there.’

“So there’s a flood still rolling around the ocean of art.”

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This artwork is going to be on the moon 'for eternity' – CNN

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Written by Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, CNN

In 1977, the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Their mission was to explore the solar system and beyond. Aboard each was a “golden record,” a copper phonograph disk containing images, sounds from nature, and music to provide a snapshot of life on Earth to any intelligent life the craft might encounter. These were the first images to be sent into outer space.
Now, as the Voyagers travel into interstellar space, artists are beginning to explore what they can do off Earth. In March a piece by Dubai-based artist and philanthropist Sacha Jafri is set to land on the moon.

Jafri’s work, “We Rise Together — By the Light of the Moon,” is scheduled to fly into space on a United Launch Alliance rocket powered by engines developed by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The launch is scheduled to take place at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in the first week of March.

The work is an engraving depicting a male and a female figure surrounded by 88 hearts.

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“The original artwork was this beautiful heart motif. Two figures entwined, reconnecting and around them is blossoming flora, fauna,” explained Jafri. He says he wanted to capture “the unification of humanity through love and empathy” in his design.

"We Rise Together -- By the Light of the Moon," by Sacha Jafri.

“We Rise Together — By the Light of the Moon,” by Sacha Jafri. Credit: Selenian

For his canvas, a gold alloy was developed over two years to withstand the extreme environment on the lunar surface whilst keeping the artwork intact. But the piece isn’t intended only for extraterrestrial art lovers.

“When we land the physical work of art on the moon, a little beep sounds in the control room,” said Jafri. On that signal, 88 NFTs will be released for sale back on Earth.

Jafri plans to donate all proceeds to humanitarian charities. “I’m hoping to raise a huge amount of money for the four main charitable concerns of our world — health, education, sustainability, and equality,” he said.

The work was commissioned by Spacebit, a UK-based company that develops space robotics technology and data analytics tools, and will be sent to the moon by Spacebit and NASA Commercial Payload Services (CLPS). UAE-based company Selenian Network, which specializes in blockchain technologies, will facilitate the launch of the NFTs.

A lunar lander will place the work in a crater known as Lacus Mortis (the Lake of Death) where it will remain “for eternity.” According to Jafri, the mission will take between five days and two weeks to reach the moon, depending on conditions.

Art on the ISS

Jafri’s isn’t the only artwork to leave Earth in recent years. In 2017, a work by Israeli artist Eyal Gever was 3D printed on the International Space Station [ISS]. Gever crowdsourced recordings of laughter and used the sound wave signatures to create his sculpture.

In April last year, another Israeli artist, Liat Segal, and Yasmine Meroz, a physicist at Tel Aviv University, created an artwork that can only exist in space.

Making use of the lack of gravity in space, “Impossible Object” is a tiered structure of gold-colored metal tubes released water. On Earth the water would fall to the ground but in space it created floating elements around the sculpture.

It was activated as the ISS orbited at around 400 kilometers above the Earth. Meroz and Segal had predicted that the water might wrap around the structure, forming a liquid shell, but in practice it behaved quite differently, forming floating orbs.

"Impossible Object," by Liat Segal and Yasmine Meroz.

“Impossible Object,” by Liat Segal and Yasmine Meroz. Credit: Eytan Stibbe and Rakia Art Mission (Ramon Foundation)

“We didn’t know what the dynamics of water will be in microgravity — what does a piece of water look like?” said Segal. “We’re used to filling our hands with water, filling vessels. In this case the water isn’t held by any vessel. It’s only held by this skeleton structure.”

As artists get creative in space, Segal anticipates innovation.

“Many technologies were developed as a result of the space race, to accommodate for a new physical reality,” Segal added. “Now art and culture can enter this new physical reality. It will force the creation of things that we cannot expect, that could not happen otherwise.”

Jafri is also enthused about the creative possibilities and believes private space missions will open up new opportunities for artists. “I think people are tapping into people’s obsession with space,” he said. “It’s a new market for the art world to tap into.”

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Rich Russians’ Art Buying Is Target of US Crackdown on Trade-Sanction Cheats – BNN Bloomberg

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(Bloomberg) — The US crackdown on trade-sanction violators is turning to the art world as authorities track down works bought or sold by ultra-rich Russian tycoons.

Through a series of subpoenas, federal prosecutors in New York are demanding high-end auction houses in the US turn over years of records as they seek to determine if art was smuggled offshore or if proceeds from sales were transferred illegally, according to a person familiar with the investigation. 

Among those named in the subpoenas are sanctioned Russian tycoons Andrey Melnichenko, Viktor Vekselberg and Roman Abramovich, along with Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t yet public. The records requested of auction houses include any previous dealings with the men, according to the person, who didn’t disclose all the companies that were served subpoenas. 

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Of the major auction houses contacted by Bloomberg, Christie’s International Plc said it “cooperates and complies fully with law enforcement as and when we are required to do so.” Phillips Auction House said it has measures in place “to ensure that no individual or institution targeted by sanctions are able to do business directly or indirectly through our salerooms.” Sotheby’s and Bonhams & Butterfields Auctioneers Corp. didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US has expanded sanctions targeting Russian businessmen and companies with ties to Vladamir Putin. That’s led to seizures of luxury assets, from a yacht in the South Pacific to art work in a French gallery. The US Justice Department also plans to seize a Greenwich Village townhouse linked to Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.

Read more: Art Seized at US Homes Part of Crackdown on Wealthy Russians

With its search of auction houses, the department is looking to track down “professional sanctions evaders” — people who help the wealthy avoid restrictions and launder money. This month, prosecutors charged two men, including a former FBI special agent, with aiding Deripaska and violating sanctions.

According to Georges Lederman, an attorney who specializes art crime and asset forfeiture cases, the crackdown has been the result of greater coordination between the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the sanctions list, and prosecutors trying to stop money laundering. 

“In the past if you violated a sanction, you got a big fine and then you had to implement a more sophisticated anti-money laundering program,” Lederman said. “But now, because of Russia sanctions and heightened awareness, there is a greater referral of money laundering prosecutions.”

In recent months, prosecutors in Manhattan have narrowed the focus of their inquiries, asking about specific artworks bought years ago, as well as some real estate, according to the person familiar with the matter. The probe is being led by the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York and the federal KleptoCapture task force, which was set up to police Russian sanctions. A spokesman for KleptoCapture declined to comment. 

$50 Million Monet

Fertilizer tycoon Melnichenko, with a net worth estimated at $12.7 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is said to have purchased Monet’s “Le Bassin aux Nympheas” for 40.9 million pounds ($49.6 million) in 2009. Abramovich is Russia’s second-largest steelmaker and previously owned London’s Chelsea Football Club. His ex wife, Daria Zhukova, was a Russian art collector. 

KleptoCapture’s lead prosecutor Andrew Adams told the NYC Bar Association in November that his team was focused on taking “assets off the table” before they could be moved to other jurisdictions.

One such alleged facilitator was UK businessman Graham Bonham-Carter, who was indicted in October and accused of trying to transfer artwork owned by Deripaska, who is under US sanctions. Using a shell company, Deripaska purchased 18 pieces of art at a New York auction in 2008, a decade before he was sanctioned, according to an indictment. The art works were kept in a New York storage facility until Bonham-Carter allegedly try to ship them out of the country in 2021. 

Bonham-Carter is fighting extradition from the UK to the US to face charges. 

In the wake of a 2020 Senate report on sanctions evasion in the art world, major auction houses and private sellers started including as a standard condition in contracts that the buyer or seller not be sanctioned or engaged in criminal activity, said Thomas C. Danziger, a New York-based attorney specializing in art law.

The leading auction houses have implemented voluntary anti-money laundering programs, but that may not be enough to prevent the true owners of art works from shielding themselves themselves behind webs of corporate structures or relatives.

“Putin’s banker is unlikely to walk into a gallery on Madison Avenue and buy a Picasso,” Danziger said. 

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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St. John's International Airport Unveils New Art Installation – VOCM

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St. John’s International Airport has unveiled a brand new art installation to welcome arriving passengers.

The piece, Art Upon Arrival, includes 24 illustrations on eight structural columns in the arrivals area are adorned with brightly colored, graphic images that harken to all things St John’s such as food, plants, nature and music.

Artist Molly Margaret says after an extended period working on the project it’s fun to see public reaction to the piece.

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