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Back Roads Bill Check your Morrisseaus

This week, with story one of two, Bill takes us behind the Morrisseau fakes story

Getting to a definitive source of information is one of the keys to an informative story and then proofing it is another so then there can be a “moral of the story.”

It takes time, sometimes there are many stories within the piece; there is some difficulty in staying within the intended theme. This is one of them and therefore there will be two stories.

Norval Morrisseau is known as the “Picasso of the North” and his works have recently been part of an art fraud scheme termed one of the largest of its kind in the world. The late Indigenous artist (1932–2007) was the founder of the Woodlands School, which drew on the history of Indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes area of Canada. Later in life, he came to know of his fakes.

The interest

I saw my first Morrisseau original in 2016 at the Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre. It is more than a museum.

For extended periods of time, the artist lived in northwest Ontario including, Red Lake, Kenora and Thunder Bay.

Trevor Osmond is an archaeologist and museum professional with extensive experience in the discovery, preservation, and display of Northern Ontario’s rich cultural history. At the time, he showed me Morrisseau paintings and one that was recently donated by Norval’s youngest son Christian.

Norval Morrisseau lived with his grandparents at Sand Point Reserve on the shores of Lake Nipigon, located SSW of Beardmore (Orient Bay). He learned the cultural traditions of his people from his grandfather, a shaman trained in the Midewiwin spiritual tradition. 

It is almost a must, take the time, this cast of characters' story will make more sense if you watch the February 1, 2020, TVO comprehensive documentary, There Are No Fakes. It is a long one but the pieces of this puzzle eventually come together.

This complex investigative piece explores the provenance of a painting purchased by Bare Naked Ladies musician and art collector Kevin Hearn. He eventually took legal action against Maslak-McLeod Gallery of Toronto which sold it to him.

It is a stranger-than-fiction tale that leads to forgery rings and the current fraud charges that allegedly include three rings operating within different time frames.

Dr. Carmen Robertson is a professor of art history at Carleton University, Ottawa. She is quoted several times in the investigative video as part of a “society” (organized scholar and curators-2005) who helped to authenticate Morrisseau originals and disputed the 'fakes.' 

They were accused of being 'Nazi book burners,' (58-minute mark of the video). “An Indigenous academic she is the author of a very informative Morrisseau biography.

In her free downloadable book, she says: “He wanted to draw things he had heard about or seen—like the sacred bear that had come to him in a vision quest, or spirit-beings such as Micipijiu or Thunderbird that were drawn on cliffs—but community members and relatives discouraged him, as Anishinaabe cultural protocols forbid the sharing of this ceremonial knowledge. When he was not drawing, Morrisseau spent time fishing, hunting, trapping, picking berries, and holding pulpwood-cutting and highway-construction jobs. In his early teens, he also began drinking alcohol.”

From an OPP media release of March 2, 2023: “As a result of this two-and-a-half-year investigation, eight people have been arrested and are facing 40 total charges. More than 1,000 alleged fraudulent paintings, prints and other artworks have been seized. Some of these paintings sold for tens of thousands of dollars to unsuspecting members of the public who had no reason to believe they weren’t genuine.”

Some of the names emerge in this story and within those charged with art fraud, you can connect the dots, as you wish.

The source

You spend a great deal of time dissecting available information on the Internet. At the same time, you are thinking about how the story can be different and within a Northern Ontario context.

In sales and journalism, they are termed 'cold calls'. When you reach out for contacts or resources, you never know when a gem is to be discovered, in this case, an original

Cory Dingle is the C.E.O. of the Morrisseau Estate and I have spent several hours with him on the phone putting this together. He has countless stories about the “other sides of Norval Morrisseau.” Academics are approaching him for many of the never known audio tapes within his own personal collection, conversations he had with Norval. `

He first met Norval in 1988 and later cared for him for a decade in conjunction with Norval’s adopted son Gabor (Gabe) Vadas whom the artist considered his adopted son. Morrisseau's will left nothing to his seven children and named Vadas the sole executor and beneficiary of his estate.

Cory explained Morrisseau became part of Vadas' family for two decades and how they looked after him in Nanaimo, B.C. where he lived out his final years. He also explained how the family harmoniously got together to settle their differences within an out-of-court settlement.

Dingle reiterated, “For context, it is highly recommended you watch the TVO-Cave 7 video entitled. There Are No Fakes.

He said the first fakes were seen in the early 1990s and then again sometime between 1996-98, and again after Noval’s death in 2007. "This fraud has been going on for approximately 24 years.”

Dingle said, “Additional interest in the fraud occurrences came the after the monumental 2019 court decision when an Ontario Court of Appeal decision, reversed a previous ruling that Maslak-McLeod Gallery of Toronto had a contravened a contract with Kevin Hearn when it sold him, what was to be an intended Norval Morrisseau original painting, presenting unreliable provenance documents.”

Morrisseau was a prolific painter, through various mediums, including birchbark; estimations vary but Cory says there may be as many as another one thousand originals still out there” and “another 4,500 to 6,000 fake originals.” The Estate has about 1,000 originals documented in its catalogue and this includes, private collections, private galleries and public institutions.

The Estate is very aware of the issues surrounding Morrisseau’s art. “We will work to bring clarity, justice and confidence back to his collectors. The Estate hopes the historic legal work being done on this matter will change the Canadian Art marketplace in a positive way for all parties.”

“The Estate is considering issuing tax receipts for turned-in fakes or offering a limited print of an original.”

Although the fraud trials are yet come he said, “The estate thanks all those involved in the TVO video that initiated the investigation and for all the “due diligence to set a wrong, right.”

Proof process

The Woodland School style of painting also stems from my interest in pictograph motifs.

The thunderbird icon has also intrigued me, as it represents power, protection, and strength; it is often seen as the most powerful of all spirits and can also transform into human form.

I embarked on purchasing a Norval Morrisseau thunderbird print, first it was on Kijiji the online classified site and there was an exchange with the seller, “Mac.” All the prints I viewed were identified as “limited edition.”

“Good morning, Bill. Sorry for the delay. The week was pretty hectic. I am attaching the pictures of the two other Morrisseau prints I mentioned. They are both in mint condition. The first one is 26x22" and the second is 34x28. The 2nd one has never been out of the original packaging. If you can let me know if you are interested I will give you the first choice before listing on Kijiji. All the best and enjoy the weekend, Mac

“They were all purchased at an Estate Auction about 10 years ago. I bought them for our rec room, but my wife had different ideas. That is about all I can tell you. Regards, Mac

“Hi. I read about the Morrisseau fraud as well. I thought it was only for his original oil paintings..... but who knows. I do not really want to take the frames apart to check the titles. These have just been collecting dust and I thought it was time to pass them on. Have a good day, Mac.” The prints remain for sale.

I identified myself as a Media query and asked questions regarding provenance.

The second query was on eBay. I corresponded with the seller 'ramezart' and his offerings still exist.

Within the exchange “ramezart” says the prints come from “White distribution limited” (sic); “those prints look very authentic” and “I have no doubt about it.” A certificate of authentication is included online with a personal note from Christian Morrisseau authenticating the ‘Thunderbird Watchers.’ You can see the legal case docket Court File No. CV-08-00366828, Nov. 22, 2008. - of White Distribution Limited et al., versus Ritchie Sinclair (art assessor). Within the sworn affidavit, it states: “it is White Distribution's practice to obtain certificates of authenticity from qualified appraisers for each Morrisseau painting that we buy or sell…” I contacted corporate eBay, which is physically in San Jose, California, but there was no response yet.

The third was another eBay query through the seller arcticfinearts. Upon researching I found it was a gallery in Wiarton, Ontario. 

Arctic Fine Arts

I put in an offer on a Thunderbird limited edition print. It was accepted, and the homespun brown cardboard protective sheets arrived at my door a few days later with a handwritten return address in the upper left-hand corner.

I used the verification service from the Official Morrisseau Estate. Cory Dingle stated in an email to me you have a “fake print of a fake original.”

There was no cell number but, through social media, I contacted Matthew Mutch, whose website says, "I have been buying, selling and collecting First Nations and Inuit art for more than 20 years. It's a passion.”

He did get back to me, “I am shocked!” was the initial response.

Then a second correspondence: “Ok, as I said, I was very shocked to read your emails and now, I (sic) am feeling terrible and angry that I have possibly been duped. I will cooperate fully and send those photos. I knew there were fake paintings out there, but I had no idea about fake prints —still seems crazy.

“I have no desire to participate in any activity that undermines his legacy or that of the Morrisseau Foundation, even for a moment. With that in mind, I’m going to delete any current listings I have for these prints immediately. I may re-list if authorized to do so. If any or all are questionable, they will never be listed, sold or given away - they will be destroyed. Thanks for the heads up.

“I will send the photos asap, hopefully by the end of the day. That link (verification) you sent is brilliant - I wish I had known about it before.”

In another correspondence, he offered a refund. And said he would take down suspected prints, which, to his credit, he did. There are other Norval Morrisseau offerings (birchbark) remaining on the website. There was July 22, 2022, Facebook exchange between Christian Morrisseau and the gallery; Christian’s final comment: “…I had a wonderful teacher.”

More on Morisseau and his work

Christian Morrisseau passed away Nov. 2, 2022. In the TVO documentary, There Are No Fakes he is seen working with Jim (James) White one of the eight charged just after the 54-minute mark of the documentary. You can also see Morrisseau's family members with White.

Ritchie Sinclair is also featured in the documentary video.

“He is an artist who was an artistic protégé of Norval Morrisseau and is considered an expert on Morrisseau’s art by Morrisseau’s principal art dealers, Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society members, and others who knew Morrisseau personally and his art intimately. In 1979, the defendant began an apprenticeship with Morrisseau and they became great friends. The defendant spent an enormous amount of time painting with him over the course of decades and the two remained close friends until he passed away in 2007.“(See below.)

“It is the Defendants view and position that Morrisseau’s sons are forgers of their father’s art and that the plaintiff admits to working with them to facilitate their art sales.” This is from an excerpt (9d) from the closing statement of the defendant about the plaintiff, James White; [closing submission statements by the defendant, Ritchie Sinclair in White v Sinclair - SC-10-109226-00 – Jan. 11, 2011].

Have you been duped?

There are verification services for your paintings and prints through the Estate. Another authentication service is through Sommer Law lawyer Jonathan Sommer represented Kevin Hearn as seen in the video. On the website, it states: “If you have, or are considering acquiring, works of Norval Morrisseau or another artist, but you have concerns, or just want to be careful, Mr. Sommer can help.”

Another service is through Ritchie Sinclair and there is a great deal of background here as well.

The Morrisseau story is a tragic, ongoing story. Will it become a movie?

One should try and understand through the lens of “truth and reconciliation.” Presently the trials of the accused are yet to come. For the future, the Red Lake Heritage Centre is considering a verification or opinion on the donated painting from Christian Morrisseau.

Cory Dingle would like to visit Red Lake, where the artist spent much time, and the heritage centre -- especially if they stage another art exhibition as they did in 2015 where many in the community offered their Morrisseau originals for display. “The Estate would offer its services to verify paintings,” Dingle said.

Norval Morrisseau arrived in Red Lake in 1959, to live in the community and work in the gold mine Fifteen years later, he became the father of seven children and an artist with an international reputation. It is thought there are many originals still in the hands of people in the Red Lake-Kenora area. The heritage centre will contemplate another art exhibition opportunity.

You will see Morrisseau originals and prints in foyers, restaurants, museums and in living rooms. Many may be taken down. Some are now known to be fakes whose buyers have been misled.

Next week we need to look at the impacts of art fraud on Indigenous artists, all artists and where you can see many of Morrisseau's original paintings/prints in Northern Ontario. Morrisseau's work has been offered at auction multiple times, Animal Unity was sold in Toronto on June 15, 2022, for $312,000. An authenticated limited print goes for about $1,000.

The clock was not ticking as I researched this story. It was my avocation so I watched the documentary three times plus I did the checks, all the interviews, emails, post exchanges, bought a print, researched and understood in all at least 19 hours.

I will frame my fake as a souvenir and will purchase a limited-edition print if the budget allows. Contact me if you know of prints or originals that can be seen in public places. “The moral of this story” is to know your provenance.

Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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