Canadian art scene observers who have been trying to prove that the market for Norval Morrisseau paintings has been awash in fakes and forgeries for years have been dealt a major setback in a decision from the Ontario Small Claims Court.
Deputy Judge Paul Martial of Toronto ruled on Tuesday that a Morrisseau canvas titled Wheel of Life that a Sarnia schoolteacher bought in 2005 and came to believe was bogus is "on the balance of probabilities … an original Norval Morrisseau" and that the Toronto gallery that sold it to her "did not misrepresent [its] authenticity."
Margaret Hatfield, 65, sued the gallery, Artworld of Sherway, for misrepresentation, breach of contract and deceit in 2009, seeking relief of more than $40,000, including the $10,500 she paid for her online purchase of Wheel of Life, attributed as a 1979 acrylic by the legendary Ojibwa artist. By some accounts, Mr. Morrisseau completed more than 10,000 paintings during a 75-year lifetime plagued by alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, occasional incarcerations and ill health. He died of Parkinson's disease in 2007.
Disputes over the authenticity of Morrisseau paintings have been fought by collectors, auctioneers, dealers and scholars, as well as representatives and relatives of the artist – and even Mr. Morrisseau himself. The Hatfield case included often heated hearings, written arguments and reviews of exhibits spanning an estimated 2 1/2 years. Lawyers say it is likely the first Morrisseau authenticity dispute to proceed through a complete trial and conclude with a judicial decision.
Jonathan Sommer, counsel for Ms. Hatfield, said Tuesday afternoon he was "very surprised by the decision based on the evidence. But the court has made its decision, and I will consult with my client as to whether there will be an appeal. We're just digesting what's been said at this point."
Morrisseau disputants have tended to divide into two broad camps, each represented at the trial. Ms. Hatfield clearly is in the one that believes the Morrisseau market has been severely compromised by the proliferation and sale of fakes. The other, represented by Donna Child – director since 1995 of the Artworld of Sherway dealership owned by her husband, Brian – insists allegations of fakery are unproven and based largely on innuendo. This side has further argued that the allegations should be seen largely as an attempt by Mr. Morrisseau's executor and former business manager, Gabe Vadas, and the artist's primary dealer between 1989 and 2007, Toronto-based Kinsman Robinson Galleries, to corral the market at the expense of other dealers, especially secondary-market sellers like Artworld.
In his decision, Judge Martial accepted most of the arguments and testimony elicited by Artworld counsel Robert Dowhan (who represented the dealer during the first part of the trial) and Brian Shiller, partner of noted Toronto litigator Clayton Ruby. Perhaps most crucially, the deputy judge declined to grant Donald Robinson, principal of Kinsman Robinson, any credence as an expert on the authenticity of the Morrisseau signature in dry black brush paint on the back of Wheel of Life. In a written report and oral testimony, Mr. Robinson said the signature had been faked, but Judge Martial said he "preferred" the analysis of the defendant's certified forensic expert, Atul Kumar Singla, who said the handwriting was almost certainly that of Mr. Morrisseau.