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Judge upholds decision that found Norval Morrisseau painting to be authentic

Detail from Wheel of Life

An Ontario appeal court judge has decisively upheld an earlier decision that found a 1979 Norval Morrisseau painting to be an authentic work by the legendary Ojibwa artist and not, as the painting's owner attested, a fake or forgery.

In a decision released this week in Toronto, Judge M.A. Sanderson said Deputy Judge Paul Martial of Ontario Small Claims Court made "no reversible legal error" and only "minor errors of fact" in a 38-page decision dated Mar. 25, 2013. That decision, concerning a Morrisseau canvas titled Wheel of Life, declared the painting was "on the balance of probabilities" an original. Moreover, Artworld of Sherway (now Artword Fine Art), the Toronto gallery that sold the acrylic to a retired Sarnia schoolteacher in 2005, "did not misrepresent [its] authenticity." The teacher, Margaret Hatfield, had sued Artword for misrepresentation, breach of contract and deceit in 2009 after she became convinced the Morrisseau she'd purchased online for $10,500 was not authentic.

Disputes over the authenticity of Morrisseau paintings have been continuing for years, even before the artist died at 75 in late 2007 of complications arrising from Parkinson's disease. The Hatfield case was unique in that it represented the first time a Morrisseau authentication joust had proceeded through a complete trial – it required five hearings spanning about two and a half years and resulting in 750 pages of published evidence – and ended with a judicial ruling.

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In his appeal, Hatfield lawyer Jonathan Sommer argued that Deputy Judge Martial had acted unfairly in accepting the evidence of Artworld experts and witnesses over that provided by Hatfield experts and witnesses. However, Judge Sanderson said it was entirely within Deputy Judge Martial's rights to regard some evidence as better supported and more reliable than others and therefore preferable.

This was especially true of the evidence from Artworld's certified forensic expert, Atul Kumar Singla, who said the signature on the back of Wheel of Life, in dry black brush paint, originated with the artist. This contradicted the view of Morrisseau's long-time principal Toronto art dealer, Donald Robinson, who, in a written report and oral testimony, said the signature had been faked. Judge Sanderson called Singla's presentation, in tandem with testimony from Morrisseau's brother, Wilfred, and B.C. art dealer Marlow Goring, "the critical evidence on which [Deputy Judge Martial]" determined the acrylic was authentic.

Still to come to trial, in the meantime, are two other suits alleging sales of Morrisseau fakes. One was filed in fall, 2012, by Sommer on behalf of Kevin Hearn, keyboardist for the Barenaked Ladies pop band and former musical director for singer-songwriter Lou Reed. In his statement of claim, Hearn alleges he bought what he now believes to be a faked or forged Morrisseau in 2005 from Toronto's Maslak McLeod Gallery. A second statement of claim, again filed by Sommer in October this year, this time on behalf of singer John McDermott, alleges Maslak McLeod in 2003 sold him three Morrisseau works the singer now believes are "fakes and forgeries."

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James More


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