In reaction to the controversy surrounding the Vancouver Art Gallery’s J.E.H. MacDonald donation

Reading Marsha Lederman’s article in the Globe and Mail on Saturday March 14, “Oil Spill”, about the “astonishing donation” of a selection of works of art purported to be by J.E.H. MacDonald, I thought it might be of benefit to add to the record comments of my experience in the file. Their intent is clarification of some issues as well as a suggestion for the resolution of lingering “questions”.

On July 14, 2014, at the invitation of a distinguished colleague and friend of long standing, I flew from Montreal to Toronto and was driven to a commercial art gallery in Hamilton where I was to participate as an evaluator of a group of paintings to be donated to the Vancouver Art Gallery.  Our hosts, Marvin Cohen and Janet McNaught, showed us to a room in their fine gallery where the works to evaluate were on display.  With only momentary delay while looking about the room, without exaggeration I can only say that shivers went up my spine.

I suppose that if I had to verbalize my visceral reaction when introduced to this group of paintings it would be very much the same as Ken Macdonald’s, described as “whoa”.

Unlike most fine “art appraisers” available, we are not only experienced as evaluators but also traders, that is, buyers and re-sellers of paintings by J.E.H. MacDonald (among other outstanding artists) and additionally enjoy the privileges of ownership, brought up literally since the crib with MacDonald paintings.

Succinctly said, for reasons of professional judgement, on July 14 in front of the group of paintings regardless of a financial incentive to do the evaluation even with the opportunity to do so disclaiming responsibility for the authenticity of them (as is the custom for most “appraisers”), I preferred caution and refused to conduct the requested appraisal.  Furthermore, had I been given the opportunity to purchase for resale any one of them, I would have elected not to do so.

Without going into unnecessary detail of the ensuing discussion with my hosts, a discussion that bordered at times on “debate” and even combative in tone, I just did not want Galerie Alan Klinkhoff to have anything to do with the dossier.  I left, taking my ride back to Toronto and then to Montreal.

Detail of an oil on paperboard sketch for Falls, Montreal River, by J.E.H. MacDonald, donated by Ephry and Melvin Merkur. (Vancouver Art Gallery)

Any suggestion that my response to the paintings was affected by their ownership is a distraction from the more serious discussion.  To my knowledge, I have neither had any dealings with the owners nor recall having ever met them.  And, in fact, the identity of the owners had not been disclosed to me prior to my expression of “discomfort”.

Subsequent to my inspection, Ian Thom did telephone me about what must have been related to him by either Mr. Cohen or Mrs. McNaught.  Ian Thom is an entirely honorable gentleman and a Canadian art curator of great distinction, one certainly not in need of my defence of his credentials.  I told him very much as I told both my colleague and hosts, that on July 14 I was “uncomfortable” with the works, that I hoped my discomfort is unwarranted but that Galerie Alan Klinkhoff wanted no part of that dossier.

In October, a respected art appraiser contacted us requesting our assistance in the evaluation she was doing for this collection.  I told her that we did not wish any involvement in the dossier.

Since my visit of July 14, I have not had discussions about these works of art beyond the above mentioned.  It appears that others seeing them or hearing about them have some reservations or “questions” about them.  Colleagues who have not seen them call for “testing” and “due diligence”.

So, what should be done?  In my opinion, one should take a few, maybe more, say “Wild River”, “Leaves in the Brook”, and “Falls, Montreal River”, put them on walls over at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the context of 30 or 40 J.E.H. MacDonald sketches there.   Invite a panel including a few experienced art conservators from both the Canadian Conservation Institute and the commercial sector (it would be informative to hear opinions on what one should expect a painting on these supports to look like if buried for 40 years as reported), a few veteran Canadian art dealers, a few veteran Canadian art curators and perhaps a couple of veteran Canadian art collectors.  Spending a morning among them, then reviewing any supporting documentation, followed by a round table discussion, then the following day with fresh eyes returning to the walls of the AGO,  I speculate that the answers to the “questions” will be resolved for the benefit of all stakeholders, including the donors, the VAG and of course the art viewing public.

7 Comments

  1. michel bigue says:

    As you said, you have no financial interest in those paintings, and you would not buy them for obvious reasons.The same applies for all the other dealers who have been quoted in the G&M article. They just want the truth to come out. And your AGO meeting is a good solution! Wonder if the two curators would like that? Are they blessed with THE TRUTH, just like the Pope? Have a good day Alan!

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    • Ralph Tieleman says:

      Thank you for this post Alan.

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    • Alan Klinkhoff says:

      Thank you, Michel, for your comment. I am especially pleased with your support of my suggestion that one hang them at the AGO among a large selection of JEH MacDonald paintings and the invitation of a “jury” to consider them and the supporting documentation. (I was not shown any relevant documentation beyond the paintings themselves and in fact was not even told that they had been buried for 40 years.) I would like to think that the answer to the “questions” others have expressed publicly will become adequately clear. I do not believe it constructive to second guess the outcome. I personally have no interest in a verdict one way or another. As I said in an interview recently, I would welcome an affirmative decision and celebrate it with all Canadian art enthusiasts. We should all remain open minded about this and be respectful of the distinguished curators who have rendered their opinion, regardless of whether one concurs. I think everyone will benefit from a resolution process. Like you, Michel, as fellow “veterans” in this business, we regularly put our reputations and money on the line considering purchases of fine and costly works of art when one is reliant only on one’s professional judgement, formed by years, even decades of these experiences. Those experiences sure hone the senses! But at the same time, we are always learning…. Thank you again, Michel.

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  2. Having studied J.E.H. McDonalda work I find the highlight on the trees in the middle ground are too bright for his pallet. In the second work A sketch for Fall, again the brightness on the trees in background to middle ground do not appear to be his usual colour selection. Your suggestion of a meeting at the AGO is a good idea that should solve the issue at hand.

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    • Alan Klinkhoff says:

      Mr Hickman, thank you for your comment. I am particularly encouraged by your enthusiasm for the suggestion of a meeting at the AGO with a few of these mixed in with a large selection of J E H MacDonald paintings. As concerns your analysis of one of the paintings under discussion, respectfully I think it preferable to leave judgement to veteran experts who have studied and worked with paintings by MacDonald for several decades and art conservation professionals who can contribute to the discussion with an appreciation of pigment and this support buried for 40 years.

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  3. Thank you Alan for your comments and yes judgement should be left for the experts. My comments regarding colour brightness was simply based on the comparison of the colour tones used in the four works by J.E.H McDonald in my families position.

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  4. Cameron Thomas says:

    Hi Alan
    As part of an authentication process for a Tom Thomson with questionable provenance this summer, I know how frustrating the process can be. I love your suggestion of a panel of experts and exposition of the questionable works at the AGO. A panel of experts is a suggestion I made in my interview with the Globe and Mail back in August for all unaccounted works for prominent Canadian artists. See article at
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/authenticity-of-latest-tom-thomson-sketch-remains-a-mystery/article31578347/. The exposition strategy you suggest is presently being implemented for the Thomson at the Tom Thomson gallery in Owen Sound.

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