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A painting attributed to First Nations artist Norval Morrisseau hanging at the Visible Storage Gallery in the McLennan Library at Mcgill University in Montreal on Jan. 26.Alexis Aubin/The Globe and Mail

McGill University has taken down a painting attributed to prominent Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau and has decided to launch an investigation because of concerns it features characteristics similar to works that were part of a massive police probe into art fraud.

The university’s decision follows reporting by The Globe and Mail that detailed concerns about a 1977 painting that was hanging in the McLennan Library at McGill known as Shaman Surrounded by Ancestral Spirit Totem.

The university said Wednesday the painting has been removed from view temporarily “for security purposes and has begun its own investigation into its authenticity using resources both internally and externally.”

“We’ll communicate the result of the investigation with you upon its completion,” McGill institutional communications director Michel Proulx said in a statement.

Jonathan Sommer, a lawyer who specializes in art fraud and who has looked at Mr. Morrisseau’s work extensively, said he was pleased to see McGill take the steps announced on Wednesday.

Earlier this month, Mr. Proulx said that The Globe’s questions about the painting’s authenticity “are the first ones we have received.” He said no one else, either from the art world or law enforcement or journalism, has inquired or raised concerns about the painting’s authenticity.

The painting was donated to the university in 2013, appraised and authenticated, Mr. Proulx added.

Mr. Sommer, who has a company known as Morrisseau Art Consulting Inc., along with researcher John Zemanovich, has said that concerns were, in fact, previously raised with McGill but no response was received.

He said Shaman Surrounded by Ancestral Spirit Totem had a number of features that “appear to be at odds with Morrisseau’s typical practices.” Mr. Sommer also said the colour in the painting lacked the balance of pieces by Mr. Morrisseau from that time period and the features are not consistent. If the painting is determined to be a fake, he has called for it to be turned over to police for use as evidence in their efforts to stop fraud.

Mr. Morrisseau’s work was the subject of a massive joint art-fraud investigation conducted by the Thunder Bay Police Service and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) known as Project Totton.

The probe, which took 2½ years, resulted in the arrests of eight individuals last year, including one, Gary Lamont, who was sentenced to five years in prison. Others are expected to stand trial this year.

A statement of agreed facts said Mr. Lamont defrauded purchasers and the public by “inducing them to buy” forgeries attributed to Mr. Morrisseau. It also said Mr. Lamont sold the forgeries to various individuals and galleries across the country, “where they were subsequently purchased by unsuspecting members of the public.”

Staff Sergeant Jason Rybak, who was a lead investigator on Project Totton, said the painting on display at McLennan Library features characteristics similar to those seized as part of the investigation.

In late January, The Globe communicated concerns from Mr. Sommer and the Morrisseau Estate regarding another artwork, known as Salmon Life Giving Spawn, which was on display at Queen’s Park.

The Ontario Legislative Assembly removed the painting and handed it over to the OPP for investigation. The painting is now part of a criminal prosecution.

When asked about McGill’s painting attributed to Mr. Morrisseau, the OPP said the university should obtain legal advice on the options available and the police are not in a position to authenticate suspected fraudulent paintings.

“This fraud is immense and widespread, and investigators believe there are many more fraudulent works in circulation,” said spokesperson Gosia Puzio.

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