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Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau works on his painting, Child of the Year, one of several commissioned by the McMichael Canadian Collection, in July, 1979.JACK DOBSON/The Globe and Mail

One of the alleged leaders of a Thunder Bay-based forgery ring that produced numerous counterfeit Norval Morrisseau paintings has pleaded guilty to forging the late artist’s work.

In March, Gary Lamont was charged with five counts related to forging paintings as part of a joint operation, between the OPP and the Thunder Bay Police Service, called Project Totton.

One investigator called the case, in which eight people were alleged to have created thousands of fake paintings worth tens of millions of dollars, one of the biggest cases of art fraud anywhere in the world.

During a Monday hearing before Ontario Superior Court Justice Bonnie Warkentin, Mr. Lamont pleaded guilty of defrauding the public of an amount exceeding $5,000 and forgery. The three remaining counts against him will be formally withdrawn next week.

When Justice Warkentin read the fraud charge, Mr. Lamont consented to the allegation but said “I never signed them,” apparently referring to counterfeit paintings that bore a forgery of Mr. Morrisseau’s distinctive syllabic signature.

The forgery lasted from 2002 until 2015, according to the charges, while the public defrauding extended from 2002 through to 2019.

Further details of the charges are expected to be made public during a Dec. 14 hearing.

Project Totton took 2½ years and laid 40 charges against alleged forgers operating in Thunder Bay and Southern Ontario.

One of the investigators, Thunder Bay Detective Staff Sergeant Jason Rybak, estimated the total number of forgeries at between 4,500 and 6,000.

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 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.

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