Eight people have been arrested in an investigation into alleged fraudulent art sold for years under the name of famous Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau, Ontario Provincial Police said Friday, noting some works were bought for tens of thousands of dollars.
More than 1,000 allegedly fake paintings, prints and other artworks were seized in the probe that has gone on for two and a half years, OPP said, adding they had worked closely with police in Thunder Bay, Ont.
“These are not small, victimless crimes,” OPP Det. Insp. Kevin Veillieux said at a news conference. “These are people that took advantage of one man’s legacy in order to turn a profit for themselves.”
Morrisseau, also known as Copper Thunderbird, was a self-taught artist of Ojibwe ancestry who is considered a trailblazer for contemporary Indigenous artists across Canada.
Police have said allegations began to emerge of people creating and selling art under Morrisseau’s name, and made in his distinctive Woodland School of Art style, before his death in 2007.
On Friday, OPP said one of the suspects arrested was “the architect” of a group in Thunder Bay that created the false paintings. Veillieux alleged that began around 1996.
The suspect forged some paintings himself before growing his organization into a full assembly line of painters, police said.
“(This suspect) orchestrated all aspects of this operation,” said Veillieux.
“He was responsible for selling and consigning these fakes across Thunder Bay, Ontario and into Alberta, where they were then purchased by unsuspecting members of the public.”
Another of the eight individuals charged also started a Thunder Bay-based group, this one around 2002, and recruited two Indigenous artists to create the fake artwork, one of whom was Morrisseau’s nephew, said Veillieux.
The artwork was then often sold online to buyers around the world, police said.
A third group is alleged to have started around 2008, said Veillieux, operating in southern Ontario and allegedly providing false information regarding the authenticity and origin of the artworks.
“It was through technology and witness evidence that we have been able to identify much of the fraudulent art,” said Veillieux.
Police said they made their arrests on Wednesday in Thunder Bay, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Simcoe County and a community near Markham.
Those arrested face a combined 40 charges, including forgery, defrauding the public over $5,000 and uttering a forged document.
“The arrests marked the dismantling of three distinct groups, groups that we believe exploited Mr. Morrisseau’s name and his art legacy,” Veillieux said.
Five of the eight suspects are residents of Thunder Bay, said Dan Taddeo, police chief of the northern Ontario city.
“The scope of this case is extraordinary,” said Taddeo. “When the Thunder Bay Police Service began this investigation, we realized that it wasn’t just local or even provincial or even national. It was international.”
Morrisseau was from the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, also known as Sand Point First Nation, and was the first Indigenous artist to have his artwork shown in a contemporary Canadian art gallery.
His official website said he was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1978 and was also awarded a posthumous lifetime achievement award in 2008.
“His contributions to Indigenous art and culture are incomparable,” said OPP interim deputy commissioner Kari Dart. “These contributions and his global success may have made him an easy target for fraud.”
In 2019, a Canadian musician was awarded tens of thousands of dollars by Ontario’s top court, which said a Toronto gallery was deliberately elusive in proving the authenticity of a painting he purchased that was alleged to be done by Morrisseau. The Ontario Court of Appeal sided with Kevin Hearn, a member of the rock band the Barenaked Ladies, in his legal battle against the Maslak-McLeod Gallery and the estate of its late owner, Joseph McLeod.