A CAUTIONARY TALE of "providing the best service we can!"
William Armstrong 1822-1914
William Armstrong was an artist and a civil engineer, based in Toronto, who painted from the 1850s to 1914. He regularly exhibited at The Ontario Society of Artists and The Royal Canadian Academy and sold Indian sketches to the Prince of Wales who toured Canada in 1860 (Armstrong painted his arrival in Toronto, left).
Working as a railway engineer, he also painted scenes of Manitoulin Indians, Lake Superior, Fort William, Plains and Foothills Indians. He was one of Canada's early explorer artist, and focused primarily on outdoor scenics of mostly the Great Lakes region of Canada
In Search of a William Armstrong
We caught a "William Armstrong" on ebay, as part of an on-line sale for Gordon's Auctions of Kingston, ON. The description (above, in khaki, as posted by Gordon's) boldly announced a watercolour by William Armstrong of Fort Niagara.
No ifs, ands, or buts. Without a qualifier in sight, Gordon's advertised this to the world as a genuine William Armstrong.
The small jpeg provided (above), showed a scene somewhat outside the subject and treatment of other Armstrongs we had seen, so we drove to Kingston to attend the auction in person.
When we looked at the painting we were struck by several things: the painting style looked different from the usual Armstrongs we were used to. Instead of his typically airy or pastel look to his art - perhaps due to fading over a hundred years - this one was painted with strikingly more saturated pigments. The colours were firm, strong and sharply defined; we thought his technique as more subtle.
The way the scene of the fort was painted, was also not his style; whereas he painted scenes as they were in reality, this painting showed Fort Niagara heavily stylized as if for a text book illustration to show how it once might have looked. Far from being a realistic representation - which Armstrong, as an engineer, strove for - this was much more like a fanciful, romanticized view of the Fort with the river heavily compressed, to bring the fort closer to the Canadian shore. Perfect for a history text book or a tourist poster. Clearly an artist's impression, not an engineer's mode of expression.
(The Algoma Passing Thunder Cape in Lake Superior and an old photo view of the same place.)
We also noted the signature. At the bottom left were clear vestiges of what may have been a signature, or title of the painting, but now so smudged it was indecipherable. But there, well above the bottom, in the middle of the painting, angled along the top of the riverbank was written a very helpful and totally clear ink signature, William Armstrong.
I thought what kind of artist would intrude his signature so far into the body of a painting? I did not think this was Armstrong's style either.
I asked the auctioneer what provenance did they have for calling this a legitimate painting by William Armstrong?
She replied huffily, "A gentleman from Toronto, a dealer, brought it here. He's a reputable dealer." Her tone made it clear, she did not appreciate such a question?
I explained all my reservations on all aspects of this painting. She listened sourly.
"If we bid on it and buy it, will you take it back if it turns out it is not an Armstrong?"
"No, we will not!" She bristled. "We assume it is what the gentleman says it is. We have to take his word that it's an Armstrong. We don't have the expertise here or the staff to check out the authenticity of paintings we sell. We have to take a person's word for what it is." OK, I thought, fair enough, but why not publish that information. Why not just say that, "a dealer claims it's an Armstrong" instead of brazenly declaring it a genuine, bona fide painting by William Armstrong.
"So you don't have a clue about its authenticity but are publicly posting it as a genuine William Armstrong on your web site and ebay? And if we discover and can prove it's a fake, you're gonna leave us stuck with it after selling it to us a 'real' William Armstrong." She glared back at me. Obviously even to her, the whole thing fell short of a reputable way of running a business.
I thought hey, what if the dealer called it a Picasso? Would you print that too? And if it proves to be a fake, well too bad, all sales are final? And isn't that the business we're in?
What kind of auction house integrity is that? What protection do you offer a customer when you hype an item as genuine and valuable when you haven't the slightest clue whether it is or not? I kept it to myself. Instead, I tried a different tack.
"Why would a Toronto dealer try to sell an Armstrong in Kingston? The best market for making the most money off an Armstrong is at a Toronto art auction which happen every couple of weeks. Why would he bring a valuable Armstrong to Kingston where he will obviously find less interest, fewer bidders, fewer bids? (And - I silently thought - a less educated clientele.) And why would he - looking around the room - consign a painting by a major Canadian artist to an auction of mostly furniture and house wares? Why?"
A long silence.
Another staff member interjected huffily, "When Harry came in he said it looked like an Armstrong." (Do the Harry test; flip between the pics up top and see if Harry needs glasses, to go with his earlier lobotomy?)
They reinforced each other and bristled at me. "So you are correct we will not take the painting back whatever the circumstances. In good conscience we call it an Armstrong." And then he huffed superiorly, "If you don't trust the painting, don't bid on it!" They both deliberately turned away. Clearly they were into "sales" and our questions were not helpful. Rather than dealing with the answers, they preferred to end the conversation.
It was most disquieting behaviour of staff of an auction house. I thought, but what about all the other bidders who are not naturally suspicious, or as knowledgeable as we are? They will trust the auction house to be honest and do a reputable screening job for them, and label a painting fairly. At the very least they don't expect an auction house to have policies that can victimize consumers and open the door for the activities of scam artists who launder fake paintings as genuine.
Here we had the Gordon's auctioneer and her staff pomposit unctuously that they didn't have a clue about this painting, but they were calling it an Armstrong solely because a "gentleman dealer" from Toronto told them that's what it was." Being from Toronto myself, I knew that "gentleman" and "Toronto" seldom go together, though they seemed to be impressed in Kingston.
Since the auctioneer admitted they lacked the knowledge, Gordon's had a moral - let's make that professional - duty to label the painting for the public as "said to be a William Armstrong by a gentleman dealer from Toronto," or "a possible William Armstrong" or "bears a signature which may be William Armstrong's."
All these cautionaries more properly reflected the facts and would have been more honest and more in line with Gordon's self-confessed lack of knowledge of this painting and this artist - and dare I say the reputation of this dealer.
But Gordon's chose to do nothing to ensure that the integrity of their firm was not compromised; worse, they took no steps to prevent gullible buyers from being victimized by a possible art scammer. As Gordon's obviously calculated, these cautious disclaimers would have reduced the bidders and bidding amounts, and consequently the auction house fees.
Instead Gordon's did the unspeakable and listed the watercolour brazenly across the entire world on ebay, as William Armstrong, Watercolour, Fort Niagara.
We did not bid. The painting was troubling, and the ethics of the auction house reeked. They could not be trusted and they admitted as much, when they openly admitted they had not time, staff, or knowledge to verify art. But Gordon's was unequivocal about one thing; if they goofed and you were duped by a con man on this painting, you were on your own. Four other people were not as circumspect as we were, and bid. The painting sold finally for $750 dollars plus.
What did the bidder buy? What did he bid on? What did he end up with? A genuine William Armstrong? Or someone's mother's art class homework assignment?
These are questions you must ask yourself every time you buy a painting of an artist whose work or signature you are not fully educated about.
A Reputable Auction House
Gardner Galleries of London, ON, which has wonderful sales of antiques several times a year, offers great protection for buyers of Canadian antiques and paintings. They offer full protection for anyone buying one of their paintings. They begin, by labelling the paintings as honestly as they can, and offer full refund to any buyer who can prove, within a month of the sale, that the painting was not of the artist or the period that Gardner's advertised it as.
This makes it crystal clear to consumers that Gardner's has not the slightest interest or inclination to make a sale out of a bogus listing. So why list items with anything but the most fastidious honesty? With their laudable consumer protections policy, they would just get headaches down the road from returned art that they don't want to be saddled with. Better to be up front from the beginning and treat the customer with respect, instead of as the person to con into buying bogus items.
The Gardner's auctioneer's banter would have announced this painting as "perhaps a William Armstrong. It does bear a signature but have not had time to check it out or the painting. There's no provenance with this work. The painting's sort of his subject matter and is a trifle bright for his work and style. It is nice, but you're on your own. We're not saying it's an Armstrong. Who knows! Could be a gem here! Take your chances. Nice painting though. What am I bid?"
Since Gardner's makes it clear that "You're on your own" and that they are not offering anything other than a "possible Armstrong look-alike," that "bears" a signature, they can, with complete integrity, refuse to take it back, if the bidder finds out later that this painting is not a "real Armstrong," and protests. Gardner's never said it was!
(Bears a signature is common art auction parlance for "There's a signature on this Macdonald painting, but we don't know who put it there, JEH Macdonald himself, his son Thoreau, an art dealer, or an art forger. You guess! You're on your own.")
On the way back from the Gordon's auction it hit us like a flash. We had seen that exact painting before, in Toronto, a few months before. At a Waddington's Canadiana sale in May, 2003, that very same painting had been hanging on the south wall to the left of the door.
We noted that the scene seemed to represent the fort sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s, in a style that represented "tourist poster'" art. It was not old - of the period it represented - as the paint was too fresh and bright looking. We also noted that the single figure in the foreground looked oddly modern in style, and did not look like the stylized figures with which Cockburn or other Canadian artists of the 1800s peopled their pictures.
Indisputably, it was the same painting that we had just seen featured at the Gordon's Auction. But the painting at Waddington's was different in one major respect.
It was exactly the same size and listed in the catalogue as 7.5" x 13," but then it was not signed William Armstrong.
In fact it was listed by Waddington's as "G**P**Horstorm, Fort Niagara." (This was likely a misprint by Waddington's staff. The name almost certainly was Horstrom, not Horstorm.) Unsure of its age, and to cover themselves, Waddington's listed it as 19th/20th century, meaning it could have been painted anytime over the past two hundred years, including last year or ten years ago!
Though interested in Canadiana we did not bid on a painting that looked it just came off the production line.
But someone else - it now became clear to us - "the mysterious gentleman dealer from Toronto," did and paid a hammer price of $390 plus premium and taxes for it.
Then he realized if he could smudge out the Horstrom signature - which explains the paint disturbance and vestiges of writing we noticed in the lower left of the painting - and add a signature of say, a William Armstrong, he could sell it for double or triple the money.
Obviously he wouldn't be able to carry out the scam in Toronto. Someone was sure to recognize the painting and blow the whistle. Why not try a backwater like Kingston, where auctioneers and buyers were blissfully basking in their ignorance of Canadian art and artists?
How about an auction house like Gordon's who ask no questions, and have no scruples at all about publishing anything you want them to, about items you consign to them?
And the rest they say is - a scam.
And it worked! Where else can you double your money these days?
The "gentleman dealer from Toronto" will try this again, real soon, pick up cheap art in Toronto, smudge out the old signature, add a more salable one, and sell it at Gordon's where they ask no questions and offer no guarantees on their corporate ethics.
But next time it'll be Picasso!