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Late painter Norval Morrisseau's pieces are central to a massive art fraud investigation that led to charges involving three criminal rings and eight alleged forgers.Alex Waterhouse-Hayward/The Globe and Mail

Police in Ontario are calling it the largest amount of art in a fraud case in history – three separate criminal rings responsible for the “assembly-line” production of thousands of forged Norval Morrisseau paintings worth tens of millions of dollars.

On Friday, investigators provided initial details of a 2½-year investigation into Morrisseau fakes, including 40 charges against eight alleged forgers operating in Thunder Bay and Southern Ontario.

The total number of Morrisseau forgeries in circulation is unknown, but the lead investigator estimated the number at between 4,500 and 6,000. “This would make it the biggest art fraud in world history,” said Detective Staff Sergeant Jason Rybak with the Thunder Bay Police Service. “Those numbers are based on witness statements that were taken. There’s no ledger, no document that can give us a firm number.”

Once called the Picasso of the North, the Ojibwe artist died in 2007 having earned a reputation as one of the country’s greatest painters. His colourful, X-ray depictions of people and animals gave rise to the Woodland School, a style of art characterized by thick black lines and spiritual themes. From the early 1960s onward, his work was featured in exhibitions around the world and fetched auction prices of up to $300,000.

But his popularity – combined with his itinerant lifestyle and prolific output – spawned a clandestine industry of fakes, according to police and art experts.

Det. Rybak’s involvement dates back to 2019, when a documentary produced by Jamie Kastner called There Are No Fakes was released. It captured efforts by Barenaked Ladies member Kevin Hearn to determine the provenance of a painting he purchased on the understanding it was a Morrisseau original. The film uncovered many of the alleged players in forgery schemes who now face charges.

“The charge list reads like a cast list for the film,” Mr. Kastner said on Friday.

After Det. Rybak saw the film, he reached out to Mr. Kastner, Mr. Hearn and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Art Crime Team in Los Angeles. By 2020, he would also enroll the Ontario Provincial Police in efforts to crack the case.

The investigators allege that the forgeries started in 1996, with David Voss, a Thunder Bay resident now facing eight charges, including commission of an offence for a criminal organization, forgery and fraud over $5,000.

A second Thunder Bay group arose in 2002 headed by Gary Lamont, who is alleged to have recruited two Indigenous painters to produce forgeries, according to police. Mr. Lamont was sentenced to five years for sexual assault in 2016. He’s now charged with five counts, including forgery, fraud over $5,000 and commission of an offence for a criminal organization.

One of his alleged recruits, Benjamin Morrisseau, a nephew of Norval Morrisseau, also stands charged of forgery and participating in a criminal organization.

In 2008, a third ring based in southern Ontario began under Jeffrey Cowan and James White with the assistance of David Bremner, who allegedly produced certificates of authenticity and appraisals of the forgeries, police said.

The three southern Ontario men have been charged with counts of uttering a forged document and fraud over $5,000. None of the accusations have been tested in court.

Efforts by The Globe to contact the accused were unsuccessful, except for Mr. Bremner, who declined to comment.

Everyone arrested in the investigation, called Project Totton, has been released and is scheduled to make court appearances in Thunder Bay and Bradford, Ont., toward the end of the month, said Detective Inspector Kevin Veillieux, major case manager with the OPP.

“Their arrests mark the dismantling of three distinct groups that we believe exploited Mr. Morrisseau’s name and his art legacy,” said Det. Veillieux. “These are not small, victimless crimes. These are people that took advantage of one man’s legacy in order to turn a profit for themselves.”

Norval Morrisseau identified 175 fakes in six galleries during his lifetime. Since his death, family members, friends and academics have worked to catalogue genuine works and call out forgeries. Despite his fame, the artist often lived a nomadic, hand-to-mouth existence. In piecing together his life, Det. Rybak found that Mr. Morrisseau often bartered priceless works for daily sustenance, creating a vast inventory of uncatalogued work.

As a result, many collectors have long argued against the existence of forgeries. “There may be 20 or 30 fakes out there, but thousands of fakes? Give me a break,” collector Joseph Otavnik said Friday.

In the Hearn case, an appellate judge ruled that a gallery owner had falsified the provenance documentation of the painting and awarded the musician $60,000.

“There have been a lot of people over the years who have tried to fight against the fraud,” said Mr. Hearn’s lawyer, Jonathan Sommer, who has been representing people who believe they purchased fake Morrisseaus for 14 years.

A previous RCMP investigation in the 2000s resulted in no charges. Investigators on Friday said they used unspecified photographic technology and witness evidence to make headway in the case.

The Morrisseau family says they’re happy with the charges and have waited for this day with hopes of protecting the integrity of their father’s legacy.

Norval’s son Eugene, a Woodland artist like his father living in Thunder Bay, said he’s met some of the accused over the years but doesn’t know them personally.

He said the case has been overwhelming and difficult to process for him and his six siblings, including artist Christian Morrisseau who died last November.

“Everybody wanted to copy [Norval’s] style because he’s the one that actually put it in front of everybody to see his artwork, really rich, and lots of beautiful colours.”

The Morrisseau children worry that fraudulent pieces have reached global distribution.

For Eugene Morrisseau, the authenticity of his father’s work comes down to when it was made and who was around him. He says his father was alone a lot of the times he painted, and not always surrounded by agents and dealers.

“That’s where you get your best work done when you’re by yourself and you don’t want nobody gawking right behind you,” he said.

The almost 60-year-old says he supports himself with his own artwork but wants to be able to pass his father’s legacy on to the younger and future generations of the family.

“We’re doing it for our grandchildren and their kids, because my father’s artwork is going to be here forever just like all the great artists of the past,” he said. “That’s where we want it to be, not in somebody else’s hands.”