Joanne Clifford/ Wikimedia Commons
Joanne Clifford/ Wikimedia Commons

The Norval Morrisseau controversy: Canada’s biggest art scandal

On March 3rd, 2023, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) announced that they had arrested eight people for “their involvement in the apparent fraudulent manufacturing and distribution of art claiming to be that of Indigenous artist Norval  Morrisseau”. More than 1,000 alleged fraudulent artworks were seized along with the arrests.

Norval Morrisseau, an Ojibwe artist known as “the Picasso of the North,” was a recognized artist from the Bingwi Neyaashi First Nation. Morisseau’s artwork represents “his people’s legends, cultural and political tensions between native Canadian and European traditions, existential struggles, and deep spirituality and mysticism.” Morisseau’s paintings are vibrant and colorful, and they “radiate light” and “almost vibrate when you gaze at them.” Regardless of overwhelming bias and as the sole Native Artist to have an individual show at the National Gallery of Canada, he broke common prejudices via his art and was awarded a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award during the NAAF Awards show in 2008.

Driven by a 2019 documentary by Canadian filmmaker Jamie Kastner, police were apparently unaware of the abudant fraud taking place until “There Are No Fakes” aired. Kastner started investigating the case after speaking with an old friend, Kevin Hearn, who was involved in a lawsuit over a Morisseau painting he had purchased and suspected was fake. Rumors and suspicions of forgery surrounding Morisseau’s art were not new and had been prevalent in the early 2000s as his popularity grew in his old age, but nothing substantial was established in court. Hearn’s “Spirit Energy of Mother  Earth” was purchased for $20,000 Canadian dollars, yet it had one particular feature that an expert questioned. Morisseau frequently signed his name with an iconic symbol on the front of his paintings, but Hearn’s and many other counterfeits, he signed it in English on the back of the canvas with a black dry brush. 

He signed it in English on the back of the canvas with a black dry brush.

Although some owners and galleries insist that Morisseau signed his name in English to make his work more accessible to white buyers, this feature has caused experts to question the authenticity of his paintings. Kastner quickly recognized the fascinating nature of these crimes and pursued leads, including Tim Tate, an artist who lives in Thunder Bay, Canada’s murder capital. Just north of Toronto, Kastner described the underground nature of this small city to The Times Podcast as the type of place “to administer its own kind of justice“. The painting is in a manner reminiscent of Morisseau himself; Tate claimed he was commissioned to create some artwork without his signature and complied because he felt it would help his career.

Kastner depicts the man who paid Tate cash and substances as a “mobster-type” figure who delves deeper into the sinister network of art fraud. In an interview with Dallas Thompson in the documentary, it was made clear that Tate was not the only artist producing paintings. He describes his job as an assistant, traveling to deliver fake art to dealers and middlemen who sell it for around $3000 Canadian dollars per painting. Another connection in the web and one of the eight suspects arrested last month was Benjamin Morisseau, the late artist’s nephew. Kastner confronts Benjamin about his involvement in fraudulent activity in a bowling alley and is met with passionate denial: “Signing a shaman’s name would be such a bad omen on my spirit that it would probably stop me.” I haven’t tried it because I already know I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.” “I have never forged my uncle’s work.”

Following the release of Kastner’s documentary, police estimate that between 4000 and 6500 Morisseau forgeries are currently in circulation, with a total value of more than 100 million Canadian dollars, following a 2.5-year investigation. They divide the criminals into three gangs, which are thought to have worked together on this scam on a global scale. The magnitude of the fraud is unprecedented, and it is expected to be prosecuted legally in Canada within the next few years.

Many Canadians who grew up learning about Morisseau and Indigenous peoples’ legacies in school were caught off guard. Kastner draws strong parallels to imperial history, stating, “What is this if not a story of colonialism going on right now with people ripping off indigenous people, violating them on every level: cultural, systemic, and personal?” The criminal gangs involved certainly took advantage of the death of a great artist to generate millions of dollars without respect for those who might be affected. Morisseau’s surviving family, as well as the rest of the world, have had to observe his name being circulated through the press in such a damaging manner, with all of his paintings under scrutiny. 

the rest of the world, have had to observe his name being circulated through the press in such a damaging manner, with all of his paintings under scrutiny.

While some owners are concerned about their investments in Morisseau’s work, his bigger legacy will prevail once the accused face legal consequences.



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