Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

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

Experts who have studied the work of acclaimed First Nations artist Norval Morrisseau, along with his estate, say a painting attributed to him on display at a McGill University library raises several red flags and should be investigated.

The concerns are part of a broader push from individuals who have studied Mr. Morrisseau’s work to persuade public institutions to examine their collections and authenticate paintings on display. The Morrisseau Estate believes inauthentic paintings now outnumber real ones on the market.

The 1977 McGill painting is hanging in the McLennan Library and is known as Shaman Surrounded by Ancestral Spirit Totem.

Jonathan Sommer, a lawyer who specializes in art fraud and who has extensively looked at Mr. Morrisseau’s work, said the painting has, in his opinion, a number of features that “appear to be at odds with Morrisseau’s typical practices.”

Mr. Sommer said the colour in the painting lacks the balance of pieces by Mr. Morrisseau from that time period and the features are not consistent.

While speaking to McGill law students on Thursday, Mr. Sommer said the painting should be examined by an expert.

Mr. Sommer, who has a company known as Morrisseau Art Consulting Inc., along with researcher John Zemanovich, that examines artwork attributed to Mr. Morrisseau, said he would like McGill to remove the painting from display and its provenance should be determined.

“If it is determined to be a fake, it should be turned over to the police for use as evidence in their ongoing efforts to stop the fraud,” Mr. Sommer said.

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 lasted 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 sold paintings to “various individuals and galleries across Canada, where they were subsequently purchased by unsuspecting members of the public.”

The lead investigator of Project Totton, Staff Sergeant Jason Rybak of the Thunder Bay Police, said the Morrisseau art fraud is believed to be the biggest in the world, with between 4,500 to 6,000 fakes in circulation.

Staff Sgt. Rybak confirmed the painting on display at McLennan Library features characteristics similar to those seized as part of Project Totton.

Cory Dingle, the executive director of the Morrisseau Estate, said in a statement that the painting “deviates significantly from what we know of Norval’s work and raises numerous red flags.”

“We believe the painting should be removed and examined by experts,” he said.

In response to queries regarding the concerns, McGill Institutional Communications director Michel Proulx said The Globe’s questions about the painting’s authenticity “are the first ones we have received.”

“No one else, either from the art world or law enforcement or journalism, has inquired or raised concerns about the painting’s authenticity,” Mr. Proulx said.

Mr. Sommer said Thursday that “we have raised concerns with McGill in the past, but never received a response.”

Mr. Proulx said the painting was “donated to the university in 2013, appraised and authenticated.” He also said the lead staff person in the university’s visual arts collection is away this week and upon her return, information will be gathered.

“When she has completed that work, and decided on a course of action with respect to the painting, we’ll share that information with you,” he said.

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 part of a criminal prosecution.

When asked about the artwork at McGill, the OPP said the school should obtain legal advice on the options available and the police are not in a position to authenticate suspected paintings.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe