The Art Gallery of Ontario collection includes an early self-portrait by the Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau depicting a naked man encircled by seven fanged serpents. The art historian Carmen Robertson was discussing this bold work in a recent online curator’s talk when someone in the virtual audience asked an awkward question: How did she know it was real?
Robertson cited the painting’s impeccable credentials but added that the authenticity of Morrisseau’s work was always a question.
“Sadly, we can’t study Morrisseau, can’t talk about Morrisseau without the elephant in the room - that is, the fakes and forgeries,” she said.
That long-lived elephant trumpeted again this week when a Quebec lawyer posted a notice on his website seeking collectors who have purchased paintings they believe may be inauthentic, as he prepares a lawsuit against dealers who have sold these works. Meanwhile, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Thunder Bay Police Service continue to pursue an investigation into criminal fraud after several judges ruling on civil suits agreed there was evidence that a ring of counterfeiters was at work in the city. Fourteen years after the artist’s death, an ugly stain of fakery and racism continues to mar the achievements of the great innovator who revolutionized First Nations art in Canada. In an era where the legitimacy of Indigenous culture is considered paramount, one of its purest voices is being muffled and warped.
“When anyone rips off the work of Morrisseau, they distort his legacy, they destroy his language,” said Jonathan Sommer, a lawyer who lives in Sutton, Que., and practises in Ontario. Sommer has previously represented several clients, including the musician Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies, who are suing art dealers over alleged fakes. “They undermine the purity of what he was doing.” Sommer, who has a few clients lined up for a new suit but wants to expand the group and has teamed up with Paul Bain at the larger Toronto firm Dickinson Wright, says he has gone public in his search because time limits may start to expire for collectors seeking redress. The lawyer has logged thousands of unpaid hours investigating their cases because he said he can’t stand by and watch unscrupulous actors exploit Morrisseau’s achievement.
Morrisseau was born in 1932 in what was then the Sand Point Reserve (now Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek) on Lake Nipigon, north of Thunder Bay, and was raised, in accordance with Anishinaabe traditions, by his maternal grandmother and grandfather, a shaman. He spent four years in a residential school where he suffered sexual abuse, but then returned to his grandparents and attended a public school in nearby Beardmore.
“He learned all the stories of his tribe by his own grandparents who still practised ancient rituals. They were the last tribal traditional pair,” said the Dene artist Alex Janvier, Morrisseau’s contemporary and one of two surviving members of the so-called Indian Group of Seven to which Morrisseau also belonged. “Morrisseau was trained naturally in his language and in the tribal ways of knowing. This upbringing was so strongly connected to the spirit of his art.” Borrowing from that traditional knowledge, Morrisseau invented an entirely novel artistic vocabulary, drawing on everything from the birchbark scrolls of the Midewiwin shaman, Anishinaabe beadwork and ancient Indigenous petroglyphs to the stained glass windows of Catholic churches and the pop aesthetic of the 1960s.
He had begun by representing Anishinaabe legends on birchbark as a young man and was provided with more materials by the doctor and amateur artist Joseph Weinstein when he was working at the mine near Red Lake in his 20s. Back in Beardmore in 1962 he encountered the art dealer and teacher Jack Pollock, who was so impressed he immediately gave him a Toronto show. It was a sellout and broke open the commercial gallery scene for Indigenous art while Morrisseau’s example would also inspire subsequent generations of First Nations artists. Today’s flowering of Indigenous art in Canada would be unthinkable without him.
“It’s not just a style, it’s a way of thinking, and it certainly has had an impact on young artists today,” said the Cree curator and art historian Gerald McMaster. “It influenced [Indigenous] artists to see the world from the culture.”
Read as an authentic expression of Indigenous identity and spirituality, the paintings were highly prized in urban Canada even as Morrisseau himself suffered increasingly from alcoholism and his nomadic lifestyle. By the 1980s he had broken with the also erratic Pollock, and was sometimes selling or trading his work himself while new dealers angled for position. Irregular – and at times exploitative – control of the artist’s genuine work, which most connoisseurs consider to be less powerful after 1986 – along with a highly distinctive visual style, an enviable critical reputation and strong prices made the situation ripe for fraud. Fakes began to emerge in the 2000s and the artist, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease in his final years, made attempts to get things under control. Sommer’s website includes the sworn statements Morrisseau made between 2003 and 2005, in which he identified as mere imitations 175 paintings offered as his work by six galleries in Southern Ontario, Thunder Bay and Edmonton.
Experts say these fakes are easy to identify – and often laughably bad.
“When you look at these fakes and forgeries, they are hollow; they don’t have in them the visual stories that he was creating. It’s a superficial style that is created without understanding the depth of the work. And on top of that, many of them are ugly,” said Robertson, who is a Canada Research Chair in North American art and material culture at Carleton University in Ottawa. For example, she says that Morrisseau used his distinctive black outlines to structure and balance his compositions while the fakes just use them randomly to encircle each motif.
Sommer also points out many works attributed to Morrisseau feature a black dry-brush signature of his name, yet there are no known examples of him using that signature in the verified works that belong to public collections.
At Carleton, Robertson leads a Morrisseau project that is compiling a database of verifiable works created prior to 1986. To date, the project has identified about 1,000 works, mainly in public collections, including a painting newly discovered in the basement of the Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora, Ont. It’s a long process, and one delayed by the art establishment’s previous insistence that work by Indigenous artists was of ethnographic rather than artistic interest. The National Gallery of Canada, which mounted a major Morrisseau retrospective in 2006 and now hangs Canadian and Indigenous art side by side, only began collecting his work after 2000.
Ruth Phillips, another Carleton art history professor and Morrisseau expert, argues that the devaluation of Indigenous work has made the art world slow to confer on Morrisseau the kind of academic attention that would make fakes harder to pass off. The reputations of Western artists are protected from forgery not only by provenance research – the history of exhibitions and sales of a particular art work – but also by connoisseurship. That is the practice of identifying an artist’s individual hand through characteristic techniques used on minor elements, such as the way a painter executes an eyebrow or a leaf. But if art is viewed as “primitive,” authorship doesn’t matter as much to collectors seeking exoticism rather than mastery. Phillips, who began her career with research associating African masks with individual artists, argues that the oeuvre of a Western artist as important as Morrisseau would have been catalogued sooner, establishing a baseline for the artist’s techniques that might have better protected it from fraud.
Sommer agrees, seeing racism in the way fakes have been allowed to propagate: “Whether it’s overt racism or a banal institutional racism that prevents people from thinking about Indigenous art on the same level as Emily Carr or the Group of Seven, that seems to be a factor in the way Morrisseau is perceived … That lack of respect and protection creates great opportunities for criminals to forge his work.”
Similarly, police intervention in Thunder Bay, a city plagued by crime against Indigenous people, including missing and murdered women, has been slow. It was only after There Are No Fakes, a 2019 documentary by filmmaker Jamie Kastner, was released that the authorities began their in-depth investigation. As the film followed Hearn’s quest to discover the origins of his $20,000 painting that art curators told him was fake, it uncovered violent crime surrounding an alleged fraud ring in Thunder Bay. In 2016, the alleged ringleader Gary Lamont was sentenced to five years in prison on five counts of sexual assault.
Even if the continuing police investigation leads to charges, Sommer may have a tough job winning a civil case. The academic experts may agree that the fakes are obvious, but judges aren’t art critics. In the initial decision in Hearn’s case, the judge ruled that there was clear evidence that fakes were being made in Thunder Bay, but Hearn had not proven that his particular painting was more likely than not to be fake. Hearn won on appeal in 2020: The second judge ruled that the falsified provenance documentation that gallery owner Joe McLeod provided to Hearn purporting to authenticate the painting amounted to civil fraud and breach of contract. Hearn won a judgment of $60,000 but has been unable to collect from the estate of McLeod, who died in 2017. He said he suggested to McLeod’s children that they contribute the amount to an Indigenous cause but received no reply.
“It wasn’t about the money, it was about finding the truth,” Hearn said. “I was doing the job others should have been doing, the police or the art world.”
Whatever happens in police stations and court rooms as the cases continue, Robertson worries that the fakes chip away at Morrisseau’s achievement.
“He really embodied an Anishinaabeg way of knowing through his art …. What he has offered to viewers in Canada and beyond is a way of thinking about art that is outside Western constructs,” she said. “I don’t think most people fully get what Morrisseau created. Having that watered-down work only further diminishes his legacy.”
Janvier simply adds: “Fakes are not honourable.”
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling for Joseph Weinstein's name.