An Oak Bay art dealer behind a seized trove of just over 1,000 pieces of art says he will defend himself against allegations of fraud.
The man, who owns the closed Winchester Galleries on Oak Bay Avenue, said: “I’m going to fight this.”
Speaking from his home, the dealer said he had recently been in hospital, “so please, respect my privacy.”
The Times Colonist is not naming him because charges have not been laid.
Saanich police seized just over 1,000 pieces of art valued in the “tens of millions of dollars” after a months-long probe into an Oak Bay dealer. Among the collections taken from storage lockers under police warrants were an Emily Carr painting, several pieces by celebrated Canadian artists David Blackwood and Joseph Plaskett, and many others of local, national and international renown.
Saanich police are not disclosing the identity of the dealer until charges are sworn in court. The man was arrested on April 21 and released on several conditions, with a court date set for July, said Saanich Const. Markus Anastasiades. “The investigation is ongoing,” Anastasiades said on Friday. “And as more people come forward to make reports, the case will continue to build.”
Investigators are preparing a report for Crown counsel recommending criminal charges for multiple counts of fraud and false pretense.
Police allege the dealer was taking art from people with the intention of consigning or appraising it, then ceasing all contact, “all the while selling the art without reimbursing the owners or artists,” Anastasiades said.
The dealer acquired Winchester Galleries — long considered a prestigious gallery highlighting Canadian artists — from long-time owners Gunter Heinrich and Anthony Sam. In a press release on Feb. 23, 2019, Heinrich said he and his partner “have passed the baton to a new owner who is a local Oak Bay resident, and we wish him success and happiness.”
Heinrich subsequently sold the gallery property at 2260 Oak Bay Avenue, which is a restored and remodelled home and contains 5,000 square feet of gallery space on three floors.
The property has changed ownership twice since then and is listed for lease, according to lease administrator Dave Bornhold, who said the new Winchester Galleries owner moved out last July when his lease expired.
Bornhold said he has received many calls from people inquiring about where the owner went. “Many were quite upset,” he said.
Mel Munson, a Victoria glassworks artist, said he got several of his glass pieces and a painting back from the gallery owner, but only after repeated calls last fall.
“It was a hassle,” Munson said, noting one piece was not returned.
As for other artists who didn’t get their works back, Munson said: “I don’t know what he was thinking or how can he possibly get away with this.”
Anastasiades said Saanich Police are fielding several inquiries through a dedicated email account — email@example.com .
“We have received numerous emails from artists and owners that have come forward to report their experience with this art dealer and gallery.” he said.
“We returned a couple of pieces [on Thursday], but expect to start returning more next week and in the coming weeks. It’s been a great start.”
The stash of artwork, found under search warrants in storage lockers in Saanich, Oak Bay and Langford, was the highest value of seized property by the Saanich Police department in the past 30 years.
Police said the stacks of packaged artwork includes more than 120 pieces by Plaskett, and several by Herbert Siebner and Jean Mewing.
A complaint registered with the Better Business Bureau of Vancouver Island last spring from a Victoria resident said a consigned watercolour painting by Dorothy Knowles — one of Canada’s most celebrated landscape artists — was never returned. After continued inquiries, the complainant was told by the gallery owner the watercolor had been sold and a cheque was promised, but never delivered.
Anita Blackwood, wife of David Blackwood, said the artist lost 13 pieces of the 70 pieces being stored and shown at the gallery. She said it was a blow to many artists who “have really been taken advantage of and been disrespected.”
David Ellingsen, a fine-art photographer from Victoria, said the gallery owner “was completely out of his depth” when he took over Winchester Galleries in 2019.
“Once he stepped in, everything started to go downhill,” said Ellingsen. “He started floundering, drowning.”
Ellingsen said the previous owners had experienced staff and a good reputation among artists. “When the new owner came on, it got shaky.”
Ellingsen said he had some of his work returned — some damaged, which the new dealer paid for, but several promises of payment for two other framed pieces never arrived and all contact was lost. “I realized the writing was on the wall,” Ellingsen said.
In the end, he was out two pieces of art worth about $4,000. “It may not seem like that much, but it is for a working artist,” Ellingsen said.
Art dealers usually take a 50% commission, but in his case the dealer took the whole value of his work, Ellingsen said.
The extra tragedy in a case like this, he said, is the new owners of his lost artwork might feel swept up in the whole debacle. “It’s not their fault,” said Ellingsen. “There are no winners here.”