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Vancouver Art Gallery needs to come clean about authenticity of Group of Seven art

Three years ago, the Vancouver Art Gallery trumpeted a major coup: "Newly discovered and never-before-displayed" oil paintings by iconic Group of Seven founder J.E.H. MacDonald had been donated to the museum and would soon be on display.

The news caused quite a stir in the art world, especially in Canada. The VAG's news release stated that the 10 paintings had been buried in a backyard in Ontario for more than three decades and unseen by the public for another four.

The backstory the gallery provided was straight out of a movie.

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Back in the 1930s, Mr. MacDonald and his family lived in Thornhill, a small town north of Toronto. In order to preserve and keep his works from getting damaged, J.E.H. (which stood for James Edward Hervey) and his son, Thoreau, wrapped the works in cellophane and tar paper, placed them in boxes and buried them in the backyard. And there they remained until the 1970s, when Thoreau revealed their existence to a Toronto collector, Max Merkur, who bought them all.

Fast-forward a few decades, when the family of Mr. Merkur decided to donate the paintings to the VAG, which had Ian Thom, a senior curator and art historian, verify their authenticity.

Mr. Thom would characterize the donation as the most significant historical gift the museum had ever received. Gallery director Kathleen Bartels boasted about how it enriched the institution's prized Group of Seven collection.

It was not long after the announcement, however, that experts in the art world began to quietly express their skepticism. They urged the gallery to get the art independently tested to confirm its authenticity. Surely hoping to silence the doubters, Ms. Bartels had some of the pieces sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa for scientific testing. That was the spring of 2016. The institute delivered its report to the VAG that September.

Read more: Vancouver Art Gallery struggles with Group of Seven authenticity mystery

Read more: The controversy surrounding the Vancouver Art Gallery's J.E.H. MacDonald donation

The VAG refused to reveal what the institute had found.

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The Globe and Mail's Marsha Lederman, who broke the story about the art world's concerns surrounding the paintings' authenticity, has tried repeatedly to get some update from the gallery, only to be stonewalled. The latest attempt was in December in an interview with Ms. Bartels.

"We know there are varying opinions about the authorship of some of the J.E.H. MacDonald paintings that the gallery acquired, and these works have been and will continue to be the subject of further study and research," the director told her. "And that's the gallery's position at this point."

Oh, is it?

I'm not convinced this is the best way for art galleries to conduct themselves in the face of questions that strike at the heart of an organization's integrity.

In fact, I'm almost certain it's not. And it's almost assuredly not the way you expect a gallery that hopes to be taken more seriously by the broader art world to handle its affairs. It demonstrates one of two things: an utter lack of sophistication or blind arrogance. I'm inclined to believe it's the latter.

Clearly, there are some major concerns about these paintings – concerns emanating from highly credible sources. If the institute that conducted the testing has given the paintings the thumbs up – has substantiated their legitimacy – then the VAG should let us all know. The fact it has refused to say what the testing found leads us to wonder: Did the institute find problems? Did it go so far as to proclaim them fakes, frauds – whatever. We don't know. Ms. Bartels has done nothing to stifle that type of speculation. In fact, if anything, she has invited it.

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The Vancouver Art Gallery is a public institution and as such is burdened with extraordinary responsibilities, particularly when it comes to transparency. We don't expect a public entity to be run like a star chamber. Sure, it would be highly embarrassing to have to admit the paintings are not what they seemed. But the VAG would not be the first gallery to be duped or to make an honest mistake. It happens. You take a bit of a reputational hit and move on.

Far worse is to stay silent, hoping no one in the unsophisticated little backwater you obviously perceive your city to be says anything.

What's more astonishing, amid it all, Ms. Bartels has been pushing her ambitious plan to build a new gallery, one that would help lift Vancouver, if not into the top realm of art institutions, at least into the next level. But she needs money – lots of it – to realize her dream.

I guess my question is this: Why would anyone support a gallery that behaves so cavalierly in the face of perfectly reasonable calls to be forthcoming and accountable? It's hiding something and needs to come clean now.

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