Millions of dollars in art seized by Saanich police

An Oak Bay art dealer behind a seized hoard of just over 1,000 works of art said he would defend himself against allegations of fraud.

The man, owner of the closed Winchester Galleries on Oak Bay Avenue, said: ‘I’m going to fight this.

Speaking from home, the dealer said he had recently been hospitalized, “so please respect my privacy”.

the Times Colonist don’t name him because no charges have been laid.

Saanich police have seized just over 1,000 works of art worth “tens of millions of dollars” after a months-long investigation of an Oak Bay dealer. Among the collections removed from storage lockers under police warrants was a painting by Emily Carr, several pieces by famous Canadian artists David Blackwood and Joseph Plaskett, and many others of local, national and international.

Saanich Police will not release the identity of the dealer until charges are brought to court. The man was arrested April 21 and released on multiple conditions, with a court date set for July, Saanich Const said. Markus Anastasiades. “The investigation is ongoing,” Anastasiades said Friday. “And as more people come forward to make reports, the case will continue to grow.”

Investigators are preparing a report for Crown counsel recommending criminal charges for several counts of fraud and false pretense.

Police allege the dealer was taking artwork from people with the intention of entrusting or appraising it and then ending contact, “while selling the art without reimbursing the owners or artists,” a said Anastasiades.

The dealer acquired the Winchester Galleries — long considered a prestigious gallery showcasing Canadian artists — from longtime owners Gunter Heinrich and Anthony Sam. In a Feb. 23, 2019, press release, 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 then sold the gallery property at 2260 Oak Bay Avenue, which is a restored and remodeled house and contains 5,000 square feet of gallery space over three floors.

The property has changed owners twice since then and is listed for rent, according to lease administrator Dave Bornhold, who said the new owner of Winchester Galleries moved out last July when his lease expired.

Bornhold said he received many calls from people asking where the owner had been. “Many were quite upset,” he said.

Mel Munson, a glass artist from Victoria, said he recovered several of his glass pieces and a painting from the gallery owner, but only after repeated calls last fall.

“That was a problem,” Munson said, noting that one piece hadn’t been returned.

As for the other artists who didn’t get their works back, Munson said, “I don’t know what he was thinking or how can he get away with it.”

Anastasiades said Saanich Police are responding to multiple inquiries through a dedicated email account – [email protected]

“We have received many emails from artists and owners who have come forward to share their experience with this art dealer and gallery.” he said.

“We returned a few pieces [on Thursday], but expect to return more next week and in the weeks to come. It’s a good start.

The art stash, found under search warrants in storage lockers in Saanich, Oak Bay and Langford, was the highest value of property seized by the Saanich Police Department in the past 30 years.

Police said the piles of wrapped artwork included more than 120 pieces by Plaskett and several by Herbert Siebner and Jean Mewing.

A complaint filed with the Better Business Bureau on Vancouver Island last spring by a Victoria resident said a consigned watercolor by Dorothy Knowles – one of Canada’s most famous landscape artists – was never been rendered. After continued inquiries, the complainant was informed by the gallery owner that the watercolor had been sold and that a check had been promised, but was never delivered.

Anita Blackwood, wife of David Blackwood, said the artist had lost 13 of the 70 pieces stored and displayed at the gallery. She said it was a blow to many artists who “have been really taken advantage of and disrespected”.

David Ellingsen, a fine art photographer from Victoria, said the gallerist “was completely overwhelmed” when he took over the Winchester Galleries in 2019.

“Once he stepped in, everything started to go downhill,” Ellingsen said. “He started wading, drowning.”

Ellingsen said the previous owners had experienced staff and a good reputation among artists. “When the new owner arrived, it shook.”

Ellingsen said he got some of his work back – some damaged, which the new dealer paid for, but several promises of payment for two more framed pieces never arrived and all contact was lost. “I realized the writing was on the wall,” Ellingsen said.

In the end, he pulled out two works of art worth around $4,000. “It may not seem like much, but it’s for a working artist,” Ellingsen said.

Art dealers typically take a 50% commission, but in her case, the dealer took the full value of her work, Ellingsen said.

The added tragedy in a case like this, he said, is that the new owners of his lost artworks might feel swept away by the whole debacle. “It’s not their fault,” Ellingsen said. “There are no winners here.”

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