Picture-perfect forgery? Art world awaits court decision on alleged fake Norval Morrisseau painting

One day in 2005, Bryant Ross, the owner of an art gallery in Aldergrove, B.C., invited his friend, the famed Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, to look at two paintings he had acquired from a Winnipeg dealer.

Because Morrisseau was suffering from Parkinson’s disease and confined to a wheelchair, Ross said, he brought the paintings out to the parking lot to show him. It took seconds, Ross recalled, for Morrisseau to render judgment on them. “I didn’t paint those f—ing things,” Morrisseau reportedly said.

A few years later, before a crowd assembled at a Vancouver gallery, a defiant Ross painted a bright red “X” over one of the paintings in an attempt to draw attention to the concern that forged Morrisseau paintings were in wide circulation.

“He’s a great man and he doesn’t deserve this,” Ross said to applause.

Norval Morrisseau sits in front of Androgyny, one of 59 pieces on display by the Ojibwa artist at the .

Since the , persistent allegations of a fraud ring peddling fake have cast suspicion on countless paintings hanging in public galleries and in private collections and put a stain on the legacy of an artist widely considered to be the “grandfather” of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada.

Now the long-simmering controversy could finally come to a head with a decision expected soon in the case of an Ontario art dealer accused of selling a fake Morrisseau to , a member of the Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies.

In a civil trial heard in Ontario Superior Court in December and February, witnesses testified to an elaborate fraud ring that operated in the 2000s out of northwest Ontario. Led by an alleged drug dealer, the operation churned out hundreds of forged paintings and even involved some of Morrisseau’s relatives, court heard.

The defence argued that the plaintiffs’ evidence was circumstantial, heavily reliant on hearsay and failed to connect the alleged fraud ring to the painting Hearn purchased.

Kevin Hearn (left) and Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies play the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, Alta., on Monday, Jan. 20, 2014.

“There are no definitive answers yet, a lot of innuendo,” said Sharon Godwin, of the Bay Art Gallery. With over 100 Morrisseau paintings in the gallery’s collection, staff are watching developments closely.

Dubbed the “Picasso of the North,” Morrisseau, who was born on the Sand Point Reserve near Beardmore, Ont., was known as the progenitor of the Woodland School of art, known colloquially as “X-ray art” because of the way he depicted people and animals in a skeleton-like manner using thick black lines and vivid colours.

Also known by his spirit name, Copper Thunderbird, Morriseau was presented with the Order of Canada in 1978. As his stature grew, Morrisseau battled alcoholism and in the 1980s lived for a time on the streets of Vancouver.

A 1974 National Film Board documentary observed that while Morrisseau “presents us with images of the insides of the he paints, it’s much less easy for us to see into him, to penetrate his paradoxical exterior.”

In 2006, the year before Morrisseau died, his work was showcased at the National Gallery of Canada — the first time the gallery had featured a First artist in a solo exhibition.

Lisa Morrisseau Meekis (left) and Victoria Morrisseau Kakegamic, daughters of Canadian Aboriginal painter Norval Morrisseau, stand in front of their father’s painting, Androgyny, as it is unveiled in the ballroom at Rideau Hall.

Hearn testified that he had always admired Morrisseau’s work, and said that in 2005 he purchased what he believed to be an authentic painting titled Spirit Energy of Mother Earth for $20,000 from the Maslak McLeod Gallery in Toronto. Set against a green backdrop, the painting — purportedly completed in 1974 — depicted birds, fish and other creatures all linked by black lines, which was meant to show “we are all connected in nature by energy.”

He later loaned the painting to the Art Gallery of Ontario for a show, only to be told that it had been taken down because of a complaint that it was not authentic.

“My heart sank,” Hearn told the court. “I felt embarrassed.”

When he visited gallery owner Joseph McLeod to get more details on the provenance of the painting, Hearn said, McLeod insisted there were “no fakes” and told him he wouldn’t be able to get his money back. Hearn said the more research he did, the more he came to realize that many other art connoisseurs may have been duped.

“I couldn’t turn back. … So as much as this is about one painting, I had to do the right thing and I think when I’m on my deathbed I will look back and know that I did my best.”

Carmen Robertson, a professor of indigenous art history at the University of Regina, was called in as an expert witness. She testified that she was “absolutely certain” the painting Hearn had acquired could not have been done in the mid-1970s.

Spirits Journeys by Norval Morrisseau

“The result here, in my opinion, is a pleasing simulation of Morrisseau’s artistic vocabulary that does not fit within Morrisseau’s art, especially in the 1973, ’74, ’75 period.”

She also testified that a faded, black dry-brush signature on the back of the painting was troubling, as it was inconsistent with Morrisseau’s practice.

Amanda Dalby was the first witness to testify to an alleged fraud ring. She said she spent several months around 2010 living in a Thunder Bay home with her aunt and her aunt’s partner, a drug dealer named Gary Lamont, who would billet young people attending the native school nearby.

Dalby testified one of Morrisseau’s nephews would spend hours a day inside a small room in the house painting forgeries. The nephew, she said, would practise replicating Morrisseau’s Cree syllabic signature (which would go on the front of paintings) and his English signature (which would go on the back). Once completed, the paintings would be rolled up into white shipping tubes.

An affidavit received by the court from the owner of a Thunder Bay art supply shop, the Painted Turtle, confirmed that Lamont and his associates were frequent customers. Based on sales records from 2004 to 2013, the store owner estimated that with all the supplies they purchased they could’ve produced 900 medium-sized paintings.

Dallas Thompson, a young man who knew Lamont through relatives and who got drugs from him, testified that he, too, witnessed Morrisseau’s nephew doing paintings and putting Norval Morrisseau’s name on them. Thompson said he saw him do this starting around 2003 at a guest house Lamont kept outside of Thunder Bay near Lake Waneka. He said the nephew was paid by Lamont with “cash, drugs, alcohol, women.”

Seven Watching Spirits by Norval Morrisseau

But at one point Lamont and the nephew got into an argument when Lamont stopped paying him. “When the money stops, the brush stops,” Thompson recalled the nephew Lamont. That’s when Lamont turned to another young artist to take over the painting. (Morrisseau’s nephew could not be located for comment).

Thompson said the paintings were advertised online and that he would help Lamont communicate with customers.

“The emails that were going back and forth, did they indicate to you that these purchasers thought they were buying authentic Morrisseaus?” Jonathan Sommer, the plaintiff’s lawyer, asked Thompson.

“Oh, yes, absolutely,” Thompson answered.

“Were they buying authentic Morrisseaus?”

“No.”

Most paintings would go for $3,000 but some could fetch a lot more. Sometime in late 2006 or early 2007, he recalled, three representatives of an Ontario auction house, Randy Potter Auctions, visited Lamont and purchased 30 paintings for $126,000 in cash. The money was stashed in a safe in the middle of the living room, Thompson said.

Sacred Beaver by Norval Morrisseau. 

(Potter himself died last month, but in a 2001 interview with the National Post he said he believed all the paintings he had sold were authentic. He repeated that in a recent interview with Maclean’s, telling the magazine he never bought paintings from Lamont and calling the alleged fraud ring a “myth.”)

Asked who else he remembered being a customer, Thompson said Lamont always talked about Bret Michaels, lead singer from the glam metal band Poison, coming to the house. “(Michaels) even gave him the briefcase he carried the cash in,” Thompson said. (Michaels’ manager did not to requests for comment).

Local media reports indicate Lamont is currently serving a five-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2016 of five counts of sexual assault against young men from 1993 to 2007. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment about the allegations of art fraud.

McLeod, the dealer who sold Spirit Energy to Hearn, died prior to the start of the trial. But another Ontario dealer specializing in Morrisseaus, James White, filed a motion to intervene in the matter after McLeod’s death. In an interview, White said he couldn’t allow Hearn’s allegations of a fraud ring to go unchallenged.

“Having supplied hundreds of paintings across Canada, I would have heard about these things. People would’ve been on to me like a dirty shirt. But they aren’t,” White said.

When allegations of fraud first surfaced in the early 2000s, the market value of Morrisseau paintings plummeted and if Hearn were to succeed in his lawsuit, it would likely “destroy the value of the market of a Norval Morrisseau painting, and if that market is destroyed, the artist is destroyed, the legacy is destroyed,” White told the court.

Inorganics by Norval Morrisseau. 

The defence put forward its own expert, handwriting analyst Kenneth Davies, who testified that the dry-brush signature on the back of the Spirit Energy painting was consistent with other Morrisseau dry-brush paintings he had reviewed.

Under cross-examination, Davies was asked: what if all the images he’d reviewed were forgeries? It would be difficult for a forger to be so consistent over time, Davies replied.

“As the old saying goes, ‘Fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.’”

Defence lawyer Michael Panacci suggested to the court the claims of widespread fraud were largely based on hearsay.

“It makes sense to me that if you’re going to … prove a forgery ring, that you’re going to at least call someone that’s central to the forgery ring and not someone who’s on the periphery that’s going to give hearsay evidence that’s going to be difficult to corroborate.”

It was a “leap” to suggest a direct link between the alleged fraud ring and the painting sold to Hearn, he said.

Attempts to reach members of Morrisseau’s family this week were unsuccessful. Wolf Morrisseau, Norval Morrisseau’s brother, has previously stated publicly that he encouraged his sibling to start signing the backs of his paintings in English since overseas customers were unlikely to know how to read syllabics.

Over the years, the RCMP and municipal police agencies have looked into the fraud allegations but have never filed charges. Const. Julie Tilbury, a spokeswoman for the Thunder Bay police, said an investigation started as far back as 2000 but went nowhere. Then, in 2010, the agency reviewed the RCMP’s entire file.

“It was virtually impossible to verify the origin of the paintings,” she said in an email. “I can’t tell you the exact number of paintings in question, but the investigation was extensive. This concluded our involvement.”

Allen Fleishman, the founder of an online auction house and business manager for artist Christian Morrisseau, one of Morrisseau’s children, said the family is choosing to stay quiet until the court decision comes down. But he did say there is worry about a cloud hanging over the entire Morrisseau family name.

Meanwhile, Joseph Otavnik, an Oshawa, Ont., man who’s collected Morrisseau paintings for 30 years and subscribes to the belief that the fraud-ring theory is being perpetuated by certain art dealers or gallery owners interested in controlling the market of Morrisseau works, said this week the ongoing allegations are “a load of crap.”

“These people are smearing the name of a great artist,” he said.

For now, galleries in possession of Morrisseau paintings are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Of the 100-plus Morrisseau pieces at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, a handful have the black dry-brush signatures on the back, which has caused “serious concerns … no question,” said Godwin, the director.

But, she said, “those people who are very familiar with (Morrisseau’s) work and history understand the strength of his original work. That, I don’t think, has been tainted at all.”

However the court decides, there’s no certainty it will quell the debate.

“There may be — and I think it’s common in art fraud — a powerful compulsion to want that artwork to be authentic, regardless of the facts,” Sommer said.

“Wilful blindness can operate to powerful effect.”

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