A long legal battle over the authenticity of a painting purportedly by the renowned Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau will have “ripple effects” on how people buy and sell art in Canada, the man behind the case said as a documentary on the saga is set to make its television debut.
Kevin Hearn, the Canadian musician who successfully sued a Toronto art gallery over the painting, said he also hopes the film, There Are No Fakes, will encourage more people to educate themselves on Indigenous art and artists and how they are treated.
“I feel there’s a strong theme of reconciliation in this story. I believe if we’re going to try to have truth and reconciliation [with Indigenous peoples], these are the kinds of stories we need to hear and talk about,” he said in an interview this week.
Mr. Hearn, a member of the rock band the Barenaked Ladies, said he first took legal action against the Maslak McLeod Gallery and its late owner because he felt “ripped off” after learning the piece he had bought – a painting titled Spirit Energy of Mother Earth – had been flagged as a fake.
“Then I started thinking, well, this amazing artist has been ripped off. Not only is he an important Canadian artist, but he’s also an iconic Indigenous person and artist,” Mr. Hearn said.
“And then I started thinking, well, how many other people have been ripped off by this guy or other people? And so I started on this journey investigating all the paintings [sold as Morrisseaus],” he said.
Mr. Hearn acknowledged his position as a public figure likely helped draw attention to the issue and allowed him to take actions unavailable to others.
“It became less about the painting or the money, and it really became about trying to do the right thing for people who had been hurt and who didn’t have a voice or a way to get justice or closure.”
The documentary, which is set to air on TVO on Saturday and again Monday and Wednesday, shows how, by challenging the origins of one painting, Mr. Hearn found himself in the middle of a bitter art-world feud between rival gallery owners and collectors.
While it centres largely on Mr. Hearn and his legal battle, the film also delves into portions of Mr. Morrisseau’s life, including a stint in jail during which he continued to paint.
It also shines a light on the violence surrounding a group allegedly churning out hundreds of fake Morrisseau works and the man alleged to be the mastermind of the operation.
The probe into possibly fraudulent art uncovered information that led Gary Lamont of Thunder Bay, Ont., to be charged in the sexual abuse of a number of teen boys and young men in the 1990s and 2000s.
He eventually pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual assault involving five victims and was sentenced in 2016 to five years behind bars. No charges have been laid against Mr. Lamont in connection with a possible art scheme.
However, police in Thunder Bay say they have now launched a criminal investigation into a possible art-fraud ring involving Morrisseau paintings. Spokesman Scott Paradis said on Friday investigators are “not prepared to speak about potential suspects or persons of interest.”
The criminal investigation is one of several major developments to take place after what’s shown in the film, which ends with the outcome of the lawsuit.
An Ontario court dismissed Mr. Hearn’s claim after a judge found he could not say conclusively whether the painting was fake or genuine. The judge said a tie must legally go to the defendant.
The province’s top court later overturned that ruling last year, siding with Mr. Hearn and awarding him tens of thousands of dollars on grounds that the gallery had been deliberately elusive in proving the painting’s authenticity.
Mr. Hearn said this week the legal dispute initially soured him on the art world. “I thought the music business was corrupt, but the art world is crazy,” he said.
But he has since purchased at least one confirmed Morrisseau piece – and he still owns Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, saying it could be a useful educational tool.
“I found it very interesting that Norval used a lot of sacred symbols in his work. And I didn’t know what they meant,” but the expert witness at the trial said whoever made the contested painting didn’t use them correctly, he said.
“So if you know what they mean, this painting doesn’t really make sense. And whoever painted it knew the words, but not the language. And I think that on that point alone the painting could be useful.”
Misuse of traditional Indigenous symbols is common in art and commercial products, largely because there are no protections against that type of appropriation, said Lou-ann Neel, an expert in the intellectual-property rights of Indigenous artists who works at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.
Ms. Neel, who is from the Mamalilikulla and Kwagiulth people of the Kwakwaka’wakw, said there were previously Indigenous-run, regional arts organizations who monitored and regulated things such as the use of symbols. But those folded in the mid-1980s when their funding was cut, she said.
As a result, the courts are the only recourse, which creates an “intended or unintended systemic barrier” for Indigenous artists and communities seeking to protect their art, she said.
“There’s a real sense of entitlement because people think it’s in the public realm,” she said. “It’s all rooted in that belief that that’s a dying race and that we gave it up, or that somehow we said, ‘Yeah, sure, take our objects, put them in museums,’ and then everybody else makes some money off of it.”
Ms. Neel said cases such as the one launched by Mr. Hearn show that the investments of collectors and gallery owners are generally placed above the rights of Indigenous artists.
“This is also happening, and has never stopped happening … with artists who want to participate in sort of the gallery museum economy, but also the everyday products [and] tourist items,” she said.
“And it’s still non-Native people making the lion’s share of the money out of that,” Ms. Neel said. “We don’t seem to be getting anywhere or getting across to policy-makers the fact that Indigenous artists are being treated differently, here in Canada.”
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