Famed Canadian tenor John McDermott is alleging that in 2003 he was sold three paintings attributed to Norval Morrisseau that he now believes are “fakes and imitations” produced by “a fraud ring operating out of Thunder Bay,” with a nephew of the legendary Ojibwa artist named as one of the “various forgers.”
The explosive allegations are contained in a nine-page statement of claim filed Oct. 17 in Ontario Superior Court by counsel for Mr. McDermott, 58, the Scottish-born, Toronto-based singer best known for his 1992 hit interpretation of Danny Boy. The statement of claim is part of a suit seeking more than $69,500 in claims and damages from Toronto’s Maslak McLeod Gallery to whom Mr. McDermott says he paid $15,000 in cash in August, 2003, for a trio of canvases by the Ojibwa artist.
None of the allegations in the McDermott statement of claim has been proven in court, nor has Maslak McLeod owner Joseph McLeod responded yet with a statement of defence.
Brian Shiller, counsel for Mr. McLeod, said in a phone message Friday afternoon that he didn’t have “any comment at this time because I have not seen the claim and I have not had the chance to talk to Joe about it at all. He just got out of the hospital a while ago from heart surgery. He’s been recovering” and was only served the McDermott claim Friday morning.
Reports of fake Morrisseaus in the art market have been circulating – and have been strenuously contested – for years, even before Mr. Morrisseau’s death at 75 in 2007. But the McDermott claim is one of the first formal legal actions alleging how the purported fakes have been created and where. The statement says “the plaintiff has investigated the likely source of the paintings and discovered they appear to have been made by a fraud ring operating out of Thunder Bay [and] run by an individual by the name of Gary Lamont, who at various times has employed various forgers, including local artists Benjamin Morrisseau [son of Barney Morrisseau, one of Norval Morrisseau’s brothers] and Timothy Tait [a First Nations artist].”
These “large numbers of fake Norval Morrisseau paintings” are then sold, the claim alleges, on the Internet, by phone and in-person to “various collectors, resellers, dealers and auction houses for resale.”
Named in the statement as “reseller entities” are Toronto-area auctioneer Randy Potter and Thunder Bay dealer David Voss, both of whom have openly and publicly sold canvases attributed to Mr. Morrisseau.
Attempts to reach Mr. Lamont, proprietor of the online Woodland Art Gallery and, on his blog, a self-described former “very close and very good friend” of Norval Morrisseau, were unsuccessful Friday. Attempts to locate Benjamin Morrisseau and Mr. Tait were also unsuccessful.
No affidavits have yet been filed on Mr. McDermott’s behalf, and on Friday his counsel, Jonathan Sommer, would say only “we have significant, direct evidence to support the allegations made in that portion of the claim but, of course, that evidence will have to be ruled on by the courts.”
In his statement, Mr. McDermott alleges gallery owner Mr. McLeod failed to disclose “certain critical information” at the time of his purchase. This includes the contents of a declaration sworn by Mr. Morrisseau in April, 2003, and sent to Mr. McLeod claiming that one of the three paintings Mr. McDermott would buy (for $9,000), Sacred Bear Children (1971), was a fake and/or imitation. The other alleged fakes/imitations held by Mr. McDermott are titled Self-Portait (dated “circa 1970s”) and Animals of the Woods (dated “circa 1960s”).
Lawsuits over the controversial legacy of Mr. Morrisseau, who painted more than 10,000 works in a lifetime sometimes plagued by homelessness, poverty and drug and alcohol abuse, are nothing new.
In an action still to come to trial, Kevin Hearn, keyboardist for Canadian pop group the Barenaked Ladies, last October sued Maslak McLeod for $90,000, alleging a painting bought there in mid-2005 for $20,000 was a “fake or forgery.” Mr. Hearn’s lawyer is Mr. Sommer, while Mr. McLeod’s representative in the Hearn case is Mr. Shiller.
Both lawyers also are scheduled to appear in court in Toronto in December, arguing an appeal by a retired Sarnia teacher who earlier this year lost her claim that she’d been sold a bogus Morrisseau in 2005.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Thunder Bay dealer David Voss as "Randy Voss."