Skip to main content

Reports of fake Morrisseaus in the art market have been circulating – and have been strenuously contested – for years.

Famed tenor John McDermott is no longer suing a Toronto art dealer for selling him three Norval Morrisseau paintings in 2003 that he subsequently alleged were "fakes and imitations." Both McDermott, 59, and his lawyer, Jonathan Sommer, confirmed this week that the action, initiated in October, 2013, in Ontario Superior Court against Joseph McLeod, was not being "pushed forward" and had been "dismissed as abandoned" in June this year.

No reason for the abandonment was given, although it is known that no out-of-court settlement was reached. McDermott's suit, for more than $69,500, made headlines nationally because it was one of the first formal legal actions to outline how allegedly fraudulent Morrisseaus have been created, and where. Reports of fake Morrisseaus, numbering in the hundreds, have been circulating for many years, even before the famed Ojibwa artist died at 75 of causes associated with Parkinson's disease in December, 2007.

At the same time, others have stoutly disputed these claims. In one much-discussed decision last December, an Ontario Appeal Court judge upheld a March, 2013, ruling that had deemed a contested 1979 canvas, owned by a retired school teacher in Sarnia, Ont., as an authentic Morrisseau.

In his statement of claim, McDermott said "the likely source" of his alleged fakes – two works from the 1970s and one from the 1960s, for which Toronto's Maslak McLeod Gallery was paid a total of $15,500 in cash – was "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, a brother of Norval Morrisseau] and Timothy Tait [a First Nations artist]." The claim went on to allege that the "large numbers of fake … Morrisseau paintings" are then sold on the Web, by phone and in person to "various collectors, resellers, dealers and auction houses for resale."

None of the allegations in the McDermott claim were tested or proven in court and will not be, at least for the time being, given the abandonment of the action. In the meantime, the alleged leader of the purported fraud ring, the 52-year-old Lamont, is currently facing 22 charges of assault, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, forcible confinement, assault with a weapon and uttering threats for actions allegedly perpetrated on several young males and at least one female in Thunder Bay and a nearby lake between 1996 and 2013. Ontario Provincial Police pressed the first set of charges, eight in total, in December last year.

Still active, meanwhile, is a suit filed in October, 2012, by Toronto musician Kevin Hearn (Barenaked Ladies, Lou Reed, Rheostatics). Hearn's action, also represented by Sommer, alleges that Maslak McLeod Gallery sold him a Morrisseau painting in May, 2005, for $20,000 that Hearn later came to believe was "a fake or forgery." Hearn, 45, seeking more than $90,000 from Maslak McLeod, said in his statement of claim that he began to question the authenticity of Spirit Energy of Mother Earth in 2010 after the Art Gallery of Ontario removed the canvas from a "celebrity" exhibition there. (Hearn is also a visual artist.) An AGO curator and "numerous individuals" suggested at the time that the painting was most likely "a fake."

Maslak McLeod has vigorously denied the claim. In a statement of defence filed in February, 2013, McLeod lawyer Brian Shiller, who also defended the dealer in his joust with McDermott, asserted Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, dated 1974 on its back, is authentic Morrisseau and that no fraud, deceit or negligence was involved in its sale.

Sommer indicated this week that he intends to employ the "fraud ring" scenario as the likely source of Spirit Energy of Mother Earth: "Those facts as they were presented in the McDermott claim, those are exactly the facts we'll be proving or attempting to prove in the Hearn case." Court consideration of Hearn's claim is not expected to occur until some time in 2015 at the earliest.

Interact with The Globe