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A worker installs Canadian Aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau's painting "Androgyny" in the ballroom at Rideau Hall Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 in Ottawa. Measuring 3.66m high and 6.1m wide, "Androgyny" replaces "Charlottetown Revisited", a work created by the Jean Paul Lemieux, which has been on display since 2006. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A worker installs the authentic version of Canadian First Nations artist Norval Morrisseau's painting 'Androgyny' in the ballroom at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sept. 18, 2008.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The National Capital Commission is working with the Ontario Provincial Police to investigate the authenticity of a painting attributed to Norval Morrisseau that had been previously on display at a prominent government building in Ottawa.

The NCC’s decision came to light after The Globe and Mail contacted the department of Global Affairs Canada about concerns from the estate of Mr. Morrisseau, which said it believed the painting had “similar characteristics” to pieces of art discovered during an art fraud investigation by the OPP. The art was on display at Global Affairs headquarters, the Lester B. Pearson building.

Global Affairs said the artwork is not part of an inventory that belongs to the department’s visual arts collection but instead belongs to the NCC.

Valérie Dufour, a senior manager of strategic communications for the NCC, said the Crown corporation, which is dedicated to the capital region, is “collaborating with the authorities to verify the authenticity of the artwork which is no longer displayed.”

Ms. Dufour said Friday the artwork was taken down in May of 2021.

Gosia Puzio, a spokesperson with the OPP, said she can confirm the “OPP is aware and engaged with the NCC in relation to authenticating the artwork” and no further details are available.

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An image of a painting attributed to Norval Morrisseau that was previously featured on a government webpage titled "Canadian Aboriginal Art in the Senate." The painting is now under investigation by the OPP and NCC.Canadian Aboriginal Art in the Senate/Supplied

Mr. Morrisseau was an acclaimed artist and residential school survivor who experienced sexual and psychological abuses after he was forcibly removed from his community, the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. Mr. Morrisseau’s work is displayed in prominent buildings and institutions.

Mr. Morrisseau became a member of the Order of Canada in 1978 and was the first Indigenous artist to have a solo show at the National Gallery of Canada.

But Mr. Morrisseau’s legacy has been affected by inauthentic pieces that are now believed by the estate to outnumber the real ones.

Cory Dingle, who is the director of the Norval Morrisseau Estate, said there are estimated to be up to 6,000 fraudulent pieces that could be circulating in the market.

Mr. Dingle said in a statement on Friday that the estate applauds the NCC for their “attention and diligence in seeking legitimacy to the painting that we suspect might be fraudulent.”

“We are willing to assist them in their endeavours,” Mr. Dingle said. “The estate looks forward to hearing the outcome of the investigation and assisting the government in the cleaning up of all fraudulent paintings.”

Jonathan Sommer, a lawyer who regularly represents victims of art fraud, said it would be no surprise if fraudulent pieces of art have made their way in to public institutions or on to the walls of government buildings. He said if the NCC is making efforts to determine the authenticity of the artwork, he applauds the effort.

“This is something that very much has to be done,” he said. “It has to be done to fight art fraud, it has to be done to restore Norval Morrisseau’s legacy and it has to be done in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.”

Prior to his 2007 death, allegations started to emerge about people who were creating and selling art under his name and with his distinct Woodland School of Art style.

Last March, the OPP and the Thunder Bay Police Service arrested eight individuals for their involvement in the apparent fraudulent manufacturing and distribution of artwork purported to be created by Mr. Morrisseau.

The forces said that, as a result of a 2½-year investigation, the eight individuals faced a total of 40 charges and more than 1,000 alleged fraudulent paintings, prints and other artworks had been seized. Some of these paintings sold for tens of thousands of dollars to members of the public who had no reason to believe they weren’t genuine, the forces added.

In December, Thunder Bay resident Gary Lamont was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in defrauding purchasers and the public by inducing them to buy work falsely attributed to Mr. Morrisseau.

“In addition to trading the forgeries to local distributors, Lamont sold the forgeries to various individuals and galleries across Canada, where they were subsequently purchased by unsuspecting members of the public,” an agreed statement of facts said.

The statement also said each piece was sold by Mr. Lamont, on average, for between $2,000 and $10,000.

Mr. Dingle said there are a “vast amount of characteristics” that are similar between the painting that was in the Lester B. Pearson building and those seized in the OPP investigation.

The estate has great concern about all paintings suspected to be inauthentic, he said, adding it is especially concerned “when that painting is shown in a prominent building on TV with officials in front of it.” Mr. Dingle was referring to a television interview with Liberal cabinet minister François-Philippe Champagne that featured the artwork in December, 2020.

Mr. Sommer runs a company called Morrisseau Art Consulting Inc. with John Zemanovich, who has extensively researched Mr. Morrisseau’s artworks. It investigates and examines work attributed to Mr. Morrisseau.

Mr. Sommer said the piece of art, which was also previously hung in the Senate of Canada, raises some “red flags” for him, such as its visual composition, choice of colours and the way figures are drawn, adding this is inconsistent with many of Mr. Morrisseau’s standard practices.

“They also, at the same time, appear to be consistent with many of the things we’re seeing in the artworks that, for example, Gary Lamont, the fraudster, has admitted to producing in his fraud ring,” Mr. Sommer said.

Mr. Sommer said he highly recommends the piece of art be examined by a credible expert.

Resources must be made available to address issues of art fraud generally, such as a through a unit within the RCMP or the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, that can co-ordinate efforts across the country to stop art fraud, Mr. Sommer said. Mr. Dingle has also called for intervention, such as a federal art division.

Sergeant Kim Chamberland said the RCMP shares a fraud mandate with other police across Canada. “At this time, there is no consideration within the RCMP to create a federal art fraud investigation unit.”

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