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'Salmon Life Giving Spawn,' a painting attributed to Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau, is no longer on exhibit at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario after authenticity concerns were raised.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A First Nations-owned gallery that lent a painting to Queen’s Park that was attributed to acclaimed artist Norval Morrisseau now says it believes the piece is a fake.

The Whetung Ojibwa Centre, located on Curve Lake First Nation, about 30 kilometres north of Peterborough, Ont., said in a statement it lent a painting known as Salmon Life Giving Spawn to the Ontario legislative assembly several years ago and until recently, it believed the painting to be authentic.

In its statement shared by its lawyer, Jonathan Sommer, the centre said although more facts related to this painting may emerge, it is “now of the opinion that Salmon Life Giving Spawn is a fake.”

The centre said it is pleased the painting has been removed from display at the legislature and that the Ontario Provincial Police has seized the artwork for further investigation. It also said it will support the efforts of law enforcement.

The Morrisseau Estate said in a statement it wished to extend gratitude to the centre and the Whetung family, adding the gallery has sold and promoted Indigenous products for decades.

The estate’s executive director Cory Dingle said many, including individuals who knew Mr. Morrisseau personally, have been deceived by this “extensive art fraud” now before the courts.

Mr. Sommer said Friday that the painting was provided to the Whetung Ojibwa Centre by Jim White.

Mr. White was charged in 2023 by the OPP in connection with its investigation into fraudulent art attributed to Mr. Morriseau. The allegations against Mr. White have not been proven in court.

Mr. Sommer said Mr. White provided the centre with a copy of an appraisal for the painting issued by Joseph McLeod. The appraisal document shows the date of Feb. 24, 2006.

Mr. McLeod, a now deceased gallery owner, was found liable for fraud in the lawsuit involving a painting, Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, attributed to Mr. Morrisseau and purchased by Barenaked Ladies musician Kevin Hearn. In 2019, Mr. Hearn was awarded more than $60,000 in the legal battle over the artwork. Mr. Sommer represented Mr. Hearn in that case.

Separately, Mr. Sommer and researcher John Zemanovich run a company, Morrisseau Art Consulting Inc., that investigates and examines work attributed to Mr. Morrisseau. Prior to the removal of Salmon Life Giving Spawn from the legislature, Mr. Sommer raised concerns about the authenticity of the artwork.

The Morrisseau Estate also told The Globe and Mail it had significant concerns about the authenticity of the painting and it called for the piece to be handed over to the OPP for its investigation into forgeries of Mr. Morrisseau’s artwork.

After The Globe shared those concerns about the authenticity of the painting with the Legislative Assembly, it released statement saying that Salmon Life Giving Spawn had been on loan from the Whetung Ojibwa Centre and the painting had been removed while it tried to get more information.

A spokesperson for the OPP, Gosia Puzio, said Wednesday the OPP was seizing the painting as part of Project Totton, a joint investigation with the Thunder Bay Police Service examining artworks falsely attributed to Mr. Morrisseau, a residential school survivor who died in 2007.

Last March, after 2½ years of investigation, the OPP and Thunder Bay Police announced eight arrests, including Mr. White’s, and said more than 1,000 pieces of art had been seized as part of their work.

Detective Staff Sergeant Jason Rybak with the Thunder Bay Police Service said at the time that there could be between 4,500 and 6,000 Morrisseau forgeries in circulation and that “this would make it the biggest art fraud in world history.”

In December, Thunder Bay resident Gary Lamont was sentenced to five years in prison in connection to forgeries.

A statement of agreed facts said Mr. Lamont sold paintings to “various individuals and galleries across Canada, where they were subsequently purchased by unsuspecting members of the public.”

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