The Human Side of Art Forgery


The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson Forgeries by Jon S. Dellandrea (Goose Lane) is a first-person account of a forgotten Canadian art history mystery. The story kicks off when Dellandrea, a Toronto art collector, purchases a box of effects of the unknown artist William Firth MacGregor. Among the sketches are newspaper clippings detailing MacGregor’s involvement in a major art fraud case in the 1960s, where he was put on trial for forging hundreds of pieces of art by iconic Canadian painters. Intrigued, Dellandrea tracks down archival material and as many fake paintings as he can get his hands on. Accompanying the case are the author’s own photographs of the forged paintings alongside the originals they took inspiration from, black-and-white pictures of key characters and locations, as well as dramatic images of white-gloved hands holding key documents against black backgrounds, which I can only imagine were enjoyable to stage. The images provide colour and drama to the narrative, which is sometimes repetitive in its details. Dellandrea works hard to sympathize with MacGregor, a down-on-his-luck artist who knowingly copied paintings for unscrupulous art dealers in exchange for small sums of money, but otherwise allows the lead investigators of the case, OPP detective James Erskine and art advisor/Group of Seven member A.J. Casson, to guide the narrative. As someone who loves art, but admittedly could not give the names of more than a couple Group of Seven artists, I found this book did not actually help me differentiate the Group of Seven artists’ work materially from each other, but it did help me fill in some gaps in my knowledge of the group more broadly. More interesting to me was the detail provided on how the fakes were actually produced, and seeing side-by-side comparison images of the forged and original artworks was fascinating. Living at that wonderful intersection of true crime and art history, The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case brings to light a long-ago scandal, and manages to humanize an art forger.

Kelsea O’Connor

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Kelsea O’Connor is contributing editor to Geist. She lives in New Westminster.



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