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Saanich police seize just over a thousand pieces of art, worth millions of dollars

The owner of some of the art — three original Emily Carr paintings and a David Blackwood watercolour — became suspicious when the gallery closed and attempts to contact the art dealer went unanswered.

Saanich police have seized just over 1,000 pieces of art worth tens of millions of dollars — including three original Emily Carr paintings and several David Blackwood pieces — after investigating an art dealer in Oak Bay.

It is the highest value of seized property by the ­department in the past 30 years, Saanich police told the Times Colonist.

An art owner contacted police on April 11 to report that, in March, they had entrusted a dealer with four pieces of fine art for consignment and potential sale at a gallery in Oak Bay: three original Carr paintings and a Blackwood watercolour. Both are renowned Canadian artists. There were also pieces by Canadian painter Joseph Plaskett.

The owner of the Carr and Blackwood paintings became suspicious when the gallery recently closed and attempts to contact the dealer went unanswered. The police investigation found several other victims who had consigned art to the dealer, only to have all communication cut off.

Detectives with the Major Crime Unit executed three search warrants at storage sites in Saanich, Oak Bay and ­Langford. An initial search found 600 pieces of art, the next more than 100 and the final search more than 300, police said.

Police said in total just over 1,000 pieces were seized, with an estimated value “in the tens of millions of dollars.”

The art is being stored at a secure location.

The dealer, whose identity can’t be disclosed until charges are sworn in court, was arrested on April 21 and released on ­several conditions, with a court date set for July, said Saanich Const. Markus Anastasiades.

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 the art, later ­ceasing all contact, all the while ­selling the art without reimbursing the owners or artists,” said ­Anastasiades.

As the investigation continues, detectives are in contact with the artists, their families or representatives, and the owners of the art in an effort to return all of the work to the rightful owners.

Anita Blackwood, wife of artist David Blackwood, told Glacier Media it was “very unfortunate that a number of artists known to me and many unknown to me have really been taken advantage of and been disrespected.”

One of Canada’s leading print makers, David Blackwood’s work has been celebrated for five decades.

This experience has been disappointing, Anita Blackwood said. “It’s really a dramatic example of what can go wrong,” she said.

Inquiries were made about the status of pieces in the Oak Bay gallery, but they were met with “silence,” she said.

“Essentially, phone calls weren’t returned, voicemails were not returned.”

The art is impossible to recreate. They were signed and numbered limited edition etchings. “The effort that had gone into producing those 70 works, you can’t recover that time and the effort,” Anita Blackwood said.

All but 13 of Blackwood’s pieces were recovered. “The work that we did get back subsequently was sent out to his gallery in Newfoundland and to Heffel galleries across the country,” said Anita Blackwood.

“So there were about 13 pieces that didn’t come back, and I can live with that.”

Police are not disclosing what specific artwork was seized, including the Carr paintings. The prolific Carr, who grew up in Victoria, has her work in the Royal B.C. Museum, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and in galleries and private collections all over the world.

Carr’s 1931 painting Cordova Drift, which depicts a natural seaside scene near Victoria, sold for $3,361,260 at a Heffel ­auction in Vancouver on Dec. 1, the second highest price paid for a work by the B.C. artist. The sale price fell only $32,000 below that for Carr’s 1928-30 painting The Crazy Stair, which went for $3,393,000 at a Heffel auction in Toronto in 2013.

Police believe some people have attempted to reclaim their artwork, but have been ­unsuccessful. They are asked to contact Saanich police by email at art@saanichpolice.ca.

dkloster@timescolonist.com