A company run by one of the wealthiest women in Canada and the chief executive of a large property management firm are among the alleged victims of what police have called the biggest case of art fraud in history.
Police in Ontario charged eight people earlier this month with churning out thousands of forged Norval Morrisseau paintings worth tens of millions of dollars – works that ended up hanging in galleries and the homes of unsuspecting collectors. The individuals were part of three separate fraud rings, according to detectives, the earliest of which started operating in 1996.
Court records filed in Thunder Bay show that Westerkirk Capital Inc. is among those allegedly defrauded. The sole director of Westerkirk is Sherry Brydson, whose net worth has been estimated at more than US$14-billion by Bloomberg. Ms. Brydson is the granddaughter of Roy Thomson and a shareholder in Woodbridge Co. Ltd., the controlling shareholder of Thomson Reuters Corp. Woodbridge is also the owner of The Globe and Mail.
“Norval Morrisseau is one of Canada’s most significant and celebrated artists, and we are grateful that both he and his work have been globally recognized as such,” said Neil Sweeney, vice-president of corporate affairs at Westerkirk. He declined to comment further, citing the criminal case.
A deep passion for art runs in Ms. Brydson’s family. Her uncle, Kenneth Thomson, amassed a sizable collection during his lifetime and donated more than 3,000 pieces of Canadian and European art valued at roughly $300-million to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2002.
Ms. Brydson, through Westerkirk, has been a collector of Morrisseau paintings for years. “I was first introduced to Norval Morrisseau’s work at Expo 67 in Montreal, where his mural on the Indians of Canada Pavilion, stunning in its colours, subject matter, style and emotion, caught my attention and captured my heart,” she wrote in a book featuring Morrisseau paintings published by Westerkirk in 2012. “I believe Norval Morrisseau has a message that he communicates through his paintings. He intended to share the stories and teachings of his people, whilst inspiring awe and respect for the natural world.”
Morrisseau, an Ojibwe artist, became one of the most renowned painters in Canada during his lifetime. He pioneered a new style of art that became known as the Woodland School, recognized for its vibrant colours, thick black lines, spiritual themes and X-ray-like renderings of people and animals. His career took off in 1962 after an exhibition at a Toronto gallery. He died in 2007 of complications related to Parkinson’s disease, leaving behind a large body of work.
Ms. Brydson staged a show of Morrisseau paintings in 2010 at a spa she owns in downtown Toronto, and has lent parts of her collection to other institutions such as the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, which put on a months-long exhibition that ended last year.
The court documents do not provide any details about how Westerkirk was allegedly defrauded or came to be in possession of forged paintings.
Police have charged David Voss, 51, with defrauding Westerkirk of an amount exceeding $5,000, according to court documents. (A message left at a phone number for Mr. Voss was not returned.) He’s one of the eight individuals accused of peddling forgeries after a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police and the Thunder Bay Police Service. Forty charges have been laid in total, and police estimate the fraud rings could have produced as many as 6,000 forgeries. The RCMP conducted an investigation in the 2000s, but no charges were laid.
Mr. Voss was a prodigious dealer of Morrisseau’s work, and sold many paintings to an auction house in Port Hope, Ont. Randy Potter, the auctioneer, recalled to Maclean’s magazine in 2018 that Mr. Voss pulled into the parking lot one day with a trunk full of Morrisseau paintings. Mr. Potter had never heard of Norval Morrisseau at the time and didn’t ask many questions about where the artworks came from. “I guess I never really cared,” he said. He estimated that he sold around 2,000 paintings supplied by Mr. Voss until he shut down the auction house in 2009. Mr. Potter died in 2018.
One painting purportedly sold by Mr. Voss was called Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, which was later purchased in 2005 by Barenaked Ladies member Kevin Hearn from a gallery in Toronto. A few years after the sale, Mr. Hearn came to believe the painting was a forgery and sued the gallery owner. The case went to trial starting in 2017, and brought to light a wealth of evidence about an alleged forgery operation in Thunder Bay run by Gary Lamont.
One Indigenous painter submitted an affidavit stating that Mr. Lamont commissioned art from him, but told him not to sign any of the works. He later learned that someone else had signed Norval Morrisseau’s name on the canvases before they were sold. Another Indigenous man testified that he worked for Mr. Lamont and witnessed Benjamin Morrisseau, a nephew of the famous artist, paint works in the Woodland style and then sign Norval Morrisseau’s name. Mr. Voss, according to witness testimony, was a customer.
Police have charged Mr. Lamont with multiple counts of fraud, while Benjamin Morrisseau faces charges of forgery and participating in a criminal organization. In a 2019 documentary about forgeries, There Are No Fakes, Mr. Morrisseau told the filmmakers that he had never forged his uncle’s work, saying it would be a “bad omen on my spirit.”
According to court documents, Mr. Hearn is also among those allegedly defrauded by Mr. Voss. The painting at the heart of his lawsuit, Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, was on display at the police news conference in March announcing the charges.
“I just want to express gratitude to everyone over the years who’s stood up for the truth of this and tried to do the right thing,” Mr. Hearn said, adding that he feels for the many people who have been duped by alleged forgeries. “There are a lot of people who never got closure from this.”
Mr. Lamont, meanwhile, is accused of defrauding Brent Merrill, the president and chief executive officer of MetCap Living Inc., a large residential property manager based in Toronto that oversees about 350 apartment buildings in Canada. He is also the owner of a Toronto art gallery called Gallery 260, which has dealt in Morrisseau paintings over the years. Mr. Merrill did not respond to interview requests.
The eight accused are scheduled to appear in court in Thunder Bay and Bradford, Ont., later this month.