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visual arts

Maggie Hatfield, a 64-year-old retired teacher, shows the painting she believed was a 1979 canvas by Norval Morrisseau in her Sarnia, Ont., home on May 31, 2012.Brent Foster

Margaret Hatfield hopes Monday will be the last time she'll be seeing Toronto for a while.

The 64-year-old retired school teacher has made the 300-kilometre drive to the city from her home in Sarnia close to 10 times in the past year and a half. Now it appears the end is in sight – the end at least of the trial portion of a suit Hatfield initiated three years ago against a Toronto art dealer for selling her a painting by the late, legendary Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau.

Hatfield alleges that Wheel of Life, an acrylic on canvas, is fake – "a factory imitation," in the words of an earlier trial witness, one even Morrisseau himself identified as such in a sworn declaration made in September, 2004, and subsequently forwarded to the dealer.

Hearings of one sort or another related to this significant deceit-and-misrepresentation suit have been going on since late 2010. Monday's, before Ontario Small Claims Court Deputy Judge Paul Martial, is expected to be the last. Hatfield wants the court, as part of the suit, to compel the dealer, Artworld of Sherway, located in the Sherway Gardens shopping mall in west Toronto, and its managing director Donna Child to reimburse the roughly $10,500, including taxes, that Hatfield paid in February, 2005, via credit card for the online purchase of Wheel of Life.

The adoptive mother of an Ojibwa boy, and a breast-cancer survivor, Hatfield bought Wheel mere days after watching a CBC telecast of a Morrisseau documentary sponsored, in part, by Artworld. Upon receiving "certificates of appraisal" prepared for Artworld by two other gallerists as part of the sale, Hatfield claims to have been content with her Morrisseau, "confident it would accrue in value" – until one day in April, 2009, when a link in an online newspaper article led her to a website with links to other sites listing alleged bogus Morrisseaus, including Wheel of Life.

"Well, it made my heart sink to my socks," she recalled recently.

While the dollars involved may seem small – small claims cases in Ontario deal with matters with a maximum "value" of $25,000 – the case ranks as a major moment in a many-tentacled, long-running and frequently bitter dispute over the legacy of Canada's most famous native artist. Sometimes called "the Picasso of the North," Morrisseau, who died at 75 in 2007 from complications related to Parkinson's disease, may have produced as many as 11,000 paintings in a tumultuous career dogged by alcohol and drug abuse.

Morrisseau disputants – and they include collectors, art dealers, auctioneers, former associates and scholars, plus the Morrisseau estate and Morrisseau's own children – tend to fall into two broad camps.

One believes that the Morrisseau market, particularly since the mid-1990s, has been severely compromised by hundreds, even thousands of fakes – "the greatest fraud in Canadian art history," to quote the Feb. 23 court testimony of Donald Robinson whose Toronto gallery, Kinsman Robinson, served as Morrisseau's primary dealer from 1989 through 2007.

The other contends that while there may be forgeries, they are few. Moreover, many alleged fakes are, in fact, genuine, even ones deemed so by Morrisseau who, this camp says, was not of sound judgment for much of his later life. In addition, allegations of fakery should be treated mostly as innuendo, this group says – an attempt by Morrisseau's business manager and executor, Gabor Vadas, and Kinsman Robinson, among others, to corner the Morrisseau market at the expense of other dealers, particularly those in the secondary market.

The flare-ups and skirmishes, in lawyer's offices, police divisions, on the Internet, at the Competition Bureau of Canada, in affidavits and occasionally courtrooms, have been many, often nasty and largely inconclusive. The Hatfield case at least holds the promise of something decisive. Unlike most small claims actions, it's been fought in an orderly fashion by lawyers – Child's defence counsel, in fact, is Brian Shiller, partner of famed Toronto litigator Clayton Ruby – using witnesses, expert and otherwise.

If the court finds that Artworld was deceitful and orders that Hatfield be compensated, it may embolden other owners of Morrisseaus they believe are fake to step forward. If Artworld prevails in attesting Wheel of Life's authenticity and its fairness in dealing with Hatfield, it will be both a tonic for dealers in the secondary market who feel their reputations and wares have been tarnished, and a caution to would-be litigants.

For her part, Artworld's Child has been steadfast in insisting that Wheel of Life, which has the date 1979 on its back as well as Morrisseau's name in black ink or paint, is genuine, as are the 100-plus other Morrisseaus she's sold since becoming director, in 1995, of the gallery owned by her husband, Brian. Indeed, after attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement faltered, Child told Hatfield in a June 2009 letter, now filed with the court, that she couldn't agree to a refund as that would be tantamount to admitting Wheel of Life is a fraud; the only way she'd agree to such compensation, she wrote, would be after she had the opportunity in court to prove the painting's authenticity.

What's certain now, even without a verdict, is the profound instability of the Morrisseau market as a result of the furor. Major auction houses continue to shy away from works by the artist unless there is impeccable provenance. Sales are flat. In March, 2007, the Art Dealers Association of Canada enacted "a rule and regulation" that none of its 100-plus members could issue a certificate of authenticity "with respect to any works or purported works by Norval Morrisseau" – a caution still in effect.

Monday's hearing is expected to be crucial, with five witnesses scheduled to testify on the defendant's behalf, among them James White, a Caledon, Ont., dealer who has bought and sold Morrisseaus on the secondary market since 2000. It was White who consigned Wheel of Life to Artworld – one of dozens he's provided over the years – after earlier obtaining it from a major Morrisseau collector in Thunder Bay, one of the artist's former homes.

Another is Joseph McLeod, owner of Maslak McLeod Gallery in Toronto's Yorkville district, a major purveyor of Morrisseaus. It was McLeod who provided one of the two "certificates of appraisal" for Wheel of Life. It was McLeod, too, who in late 2008, joined four other Morrisseau dealers, White and Child among them, to file a $17-million suit against one of Hatfield's key witnesses, Ritchie Sinclair, after the Toronto-based former Morrisseau protégé posted an online image gallery of more than 1,000 Morrisseaus he alleges to be counterfeit.

Margaret Hatfield, in the meantime, claims to be "very much at peace" heading into the final stages of her suit. It's been a long road, but "I'm not tired. I am pumped," and should the court rule against her, "I would indeed appeal," she said. The defendants have indicated they will do the same.

"I am fine with even a worst-case scenario," she went on, where there's no refund, an expensive payday to her lawyer and "I wind up paying Artworld's fees to boot." However, "it will not make me bitter to have to face this. I won't let it because it is an honourable cause."