Eight people face a complete of 40 charges resulting from a years-long police investigation into the forgery of artwork by Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau.
The Thunder Bay Police Service in northwestern Ontario began the investigation in 2019 and later brought in Ontario Provincial Police attributable to the magnitude of the investigation, the TBPS told CBC News. Five of the accused are from Thunder Bay.
“I used to be looking into the murder of Scott Dove, and through that, his mom called me and asked if I had seen this documentary called There Are No Fakes, which had information on the murder of her son,” TBPS Det. Sgt. Jason Rybak said following a news conference in Orillia, Ont., on Friday morning. “I had not, and I watched the documentary.
“From there, I reached out to Kevin Hearn, who was the fundamental victim within the documentary, and that basically was the jump-off point for this investigation.”
There Are No Fakes, a movie released in 2019, includes the story of Hearn — the Barenaked Ladies keyboardist and guitarist who purchased a purported Morrisseau painting from a Toronto gallery in 2005. Questions were raised in regards to the painting’s authenticity, and Hearn would eventually sue the gallery; he was later awarded $60,000 in compensation by the Ontario Court of Appeal.
‘Painting, after painting after painting’ seized
Morrisseau, who died in 2007 at age 75, was a renowned artist from the Ojibway Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation in northwestern Ontario. He’s often called the founding father of the Woodlands School of art and his work has been exhibited in galleries across Canada, including at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
Rybak said the investigation led police to acquire a warrant to go looking the house of Gary Lamont, one in all the eight people charged within the Morrisseau investigation, and throughout the 2019 search, police “began seizing painting, after painting after painting. And we we quickly realized the magnitude of what we were getting ourselves into.”
Rybak said TBPS then contacted the OPP and the 2 services worked together on the investigation.
Lamont is one in all the five people from Thunder Bay who were charged because of this of the investigation: the others are David John Voss, Diane Marie Champagne, Linda Joy Tkachyk and Benjamin Paul Morrisseau.
Also charged are Jeffrey Gordon Cowan of Niagara-on-the-Lake, James White of Essa Township and David P. Bremner of Locust Hill.
OPP Det. Insp. Kevin Veillieux said the investigation was “very difficult.”
“The authentication is a multifaceted approach,” he said. “We do not take a painting, and just take one aspect and say, ‘Oh yes, this can be a fake.’
“We conducted a big selection of witness interviews that provided very helpful information,” Veillieux said. “We had reached out to different groups that had the power to do certain forensic testing for us.
“I’m not at liberty at this point to debate exactly who they were and exactly what they did, because the matter’s before the courts, and to make sure the integrity of the investigation,” he added. “I’d just say that as of because of this of witness evidence and technology with our partners we engaged, we were capable of determine the difference between real and faux paintings.”
The investigation led to the seizure of greater than 1,000 pieces of forged Morrisseau artwork.
The frilly scheme explained
Rybak said the eight accused were a part of three distinct, yet intertwined groups that created the fraudulent artwork. The primary group was launched in 1996 and operated in Thunder Bay “exactly like a production assembly line.”
One other group began in 2002, and brought in talented Indigenous artists to create the paintings. Finally, a 3rd group began operating in southern Ontario in 2008.
The three groups traded paintings forwards and backwards, and two of the accused were involved within the distribution of paintings by all three groups.
The fraud also included creating fake certificates of authenticity.
In a media release, OPP said a few of the paintings, prints and other pieces of artwork that were seized had sold for “tens of hundreds of dollars to unsuspecting members of the general public who had no reason to consider they weren’t real.”
Veillieux said the fake paintings were seized from private collections and galleries.
“The small mom and pop which will have purchased one, they were completely devastated that they’d they’d spent a considerable sum of money on these as somewhat of an investment,” he said. “They were obviously very offended, a few of these people.
“Some were very hurt, embarrassed.”
At times, he [Morrisseau] would just give paintings away to people for milk and eggs, and so that they knew that there was no way of their mind of tracking legitimate paintings.’– Det. Sgt. Jason Rybak, Thunder Bay police
Rybak said money was the fundamental motivation for the fraud, but there was another excuse Morrisseau’s work was targeted.
“They knew his lifestyle,” he said. “They knew that he had struggles. They knew that he never kept a listing of his paintings.
“There’s numerous stories from people still alive in Thunder Bay and in Red Lake and Beardmore of the struggles,” Rybak said. “At times he would just give paintings away to people for milk and and eggs, and so that they knew that there was no way of their mind of tracking legitimate paintings.
“And so in ’96 when it began, it was slowly interjected into the actual art galleries. I can let you know we consider that there is a fake within the Smithsonian in Washington.”
Cory Dingle, who runs the Morrisseau estate, said he was aware of the investigation and suspects there are literally thousands of fake Morrisseaus out available on the market.
“Consider the damage to all of the Canadian artists … once we discuss all art is relational to the greats,” he said. “If I could go and I can purchase a painting that ought to be half one million dollars for $5,000 on eBay, and that is the best artist that you’ve gotten, what’s the 2nd, third or 4th artist going to get?
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s all relational. So the damage to Morrisseau’s art legacy has an effect across your complete Canadian art market.
“Imagine the narrative that we’re coping with, that we’re showing the world immediately — Canada’s best artist, one in all the world’s best Indigenous artists, one in all the world’s best spiritual and cultural icons of Canada within the Indigenous community has been has been defrauded.”
Artist says he and others inspired by Morrisseau
Patrick Cheechoo, an Indigenous artist from Constance Lake First Nation, said he was influenced by Morrisseau’s work, in addition to the creations of artist Carl Ray.
“I even have a definite and fond memory of seeing their artwork in and around Thunder Bay, Norval Morrisseau and Carl Ray, and would stand there and just admire their work,” Cheechoo said. “This was perhaps where I used to be perhaps a 12 months, perhaps two years into painting myself.
“That was a giant place to begin for me and my love for painting.”
Cheechoo also said he wasn’t the just one inspired by those artists.
“For those who’re entering a public space and also you see the art from these pioneers, it’s welcoming, nevertheless it’s also inspiring to know that you could possibly have your art prominently displayed in public push spaces as well.”
Cheechoo said he hopes the Morrisseau forgeries haven’t got a negative effect on young Indigenous artists.
“The most important thing for me is the positive impact that Norval Morrisseau and Carl Ray had in bringing credibility and valuation to First Nations art,” he said. “I don’t need to see that taking a step back due to a minority or small group of individuals.
“I especially don’t need to see any type of negative portrayal or impact on the young artists which might be teenagers, [and in their] 20s and 30s,” Cheechoo said. “I’d hate to see these young artists pay penalties for [the] actions of a couple of.
Think you’ve gotten fake art? Seek legal advice: police
Veillieux said individuals who suspect they might have a fraudulent Morrisseau painting are advised to contact legal counsel.
“We now have to emphasise that the OPP and the Thunder Bay police collectively, we cannot take paintings and determine real versus fake from anybody that brings them,” he said. “To us, this was a concerted effort that included multiple facets on how we got here to the conclusion that some were real and a few were fake.
“If sooner or later we determine that there may be credible information, evidence to support or suggest criminality, we’d address that as appropriate because it got here in.”