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Thomson painting, once thought fake, goes on the block

Thomson painting, once thought fake, goes on the block…

Rejected at $30,000 in 1987, rare double-sided panel may well fetch a cool million

James Adams

From Monday’s Globe and Mail Published on Sunday, May. 23, 2010 4:27PM EDT Last updated on Sunday, May. 23, 2010 5:10PM EDT

A Tom Thomson panel once discredited as a fake and which failed to sell the last time it was auctioned almost a quarter of a century ago is back on the block this week with expectations it could earn more than $1-million.

Heffel Fine Art Auction House is hoping to hammer down Landscape with Snow/Northern Mist for at least its presale estimate of $400,000 to  $600,000 on Wednesday in Vancouver. The small panel with a landscape on each side has been consigned by a Vancouver collector who bought it for an unspecified sum in late 2001.

Thomson has been dead for almost 93 years, but there’s no hotter painter in contemporary Canadian art. Late last year, Heffel sold a single-sided 1917 sketch slightly smaller than the one now on offer for $2.75-million – an auction record for a Thomson of any size. Double-sided Thomsons are rare, with most experts agreeing there are no more than five or six in total.

Heightening the rarity here is that the Landscape image is vertical, a format Thomson only occasionally used. Understandably, the hope at Heffel is that Landscape/Mist will follow the trajectory of previous sales and soar past the million-dollar threshold.

Another side of the Tom Thomson double-sided panel Landscape with Snow/Northern Mist.

The last time this particular panel was at auction, in 1987 in Toronto, bidding started at $40,000. When no bids came, the auctioneer dropped it to $30,000. Even this failed, and the panel (which was then called then Spring Landscape with Snow/Northern Mist) was withdrawn, pending “further research.”

The lack of action back then followed assessments by two Thomson experts who had questioned the panel’s authenticity. One was Blair Laing, Toronto’s pre-eminent dealer of blue-chip art to the Canadian Establishment; the other was Joan Murray, then executive director of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ont., and a Thomson scholar.

Laing told a CBC documentary crew that Landscape’s “composition” in particular “doesn’t work – it doesn’t speak to me as a Tom Thomson.” David Silcox, a Thomson expert and president of Sotheby’s Canada, recently agreed it’s “one of the most abstract-leaning Thomsons I’ve ever seen” – but then, as he and the late Harold Town observe in their book Tom Thomson: The Silence and the Storm, Thomson near the end of his life was a “perturbed” artist, “poised on the crevasse of figurative and non-figurative art.” Landscape with Snow reflects that tension.

Laing gave no precise reasons for his own disavowal. Even if others had declared it genuine – one was A.J. Casson, then the last surviving  member of the Group of Seven – Laing didn’t care: “There’s nobody special whose opinion on Thomson I’d value more than my own.” As for  Murray, she had earlier deemed the panel “a clumsy forgery” from the 1950s.

Since then, Laing has died (in 1991), while Murray seems to have changed her mind. She has contributed an essay on the panel for Heffel’s spring catalogue, saying Landscape likely was done by Thomson in October or November of 1916 in Algonquin Park, while Northern Mist “may date from an earlier time in the year – perhaps the summer.”

Most crucially perhaps, she’s including the panel in her much-anticipated overview catalogue of Thomson’s oeuvre; such inclusion is generally considered an almost unassailable approbation. “Certainly having a work in the catalogue raisonné, that’s decisive … the final confirmation,” agrees Robert Heffel, co-owner of Heffel Fine Art. Phone calls and an e-mail by The Globe and Mail to Murray went unanswered.

Murray’s thumbs-up is backed by Dennis Reid, chief curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario and, with Murray, a member of the selection committee for a 2002-03 touring Thomson retrospective. Reid saw the panel last week after last viewing it more than 20 years ago. He says that the estate stamps on each side of the panel are genuine, not the fakes used on Thomson forgeries from the 1950s. (After Thomson’s death, the Group’s J.E.H. MacDonald designed a stamp, in metal and rubber, that was pressed into the paintings Thomson left behind in Toronto. The stamp bears two Ts bracketed by the numbers 19 and 17, enclosed within a palette shape. Both stamps have been locked in the National Gallery for decades.)

Landscape/Mist became the first Thomson painting ever to undergo a detailed physical/chemical analysis when, in late 1989, the Canadian  Conservation Institute analyzed it using infrared spectroscopy, X-rays and other techniques. It concluded the panel was almost certainly a Thomson.

The panel was once the property of two Vermont sisters who inherited it in 1945. Their mother had bought it in 1922 at the direction of William Cruickshank, a Toronto artist who some believe gave sketching lessons to Thomson. The work stayed with the pair until late 1986 when, needing cash for a car, they sold it for $80,000 to David Mitchell, a Toronto art appraiser working with Hamilton’s Beckett Gallery.

Recent attempts to reach Mitchell, who still lives in Toronto, were unsuccessful. But according to news reports from the 1980s and the 1989 CBC film, Mitchell, utterly convinced of the panel’s authenticity, hoped to sell it privately for well over $100,000. When that strategy and the auction failed, the work was sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute. Yet even its positive verdict didn’t result in a sale: Beckett Gallery kept the paneluntil December of 2001, when a Vancouverite bought it.

In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail this week, Thomas Beckett, owner of the namesake gallery, said the Vancouver collector “paid market value” for the panel, “knowing its full history and provenance and [being] absolutely confident about its genuine authenticity.”

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