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More lawsuits pending over fake Norval Morrisseau art

Lawyer Jonathan Sommer wants to hear from others who want to join an action.
The late Norval Morrissesau founded the Woodland School of Indigenous art (courtesy Cave 7 Productions)

THUNDER BAY — An Ontario lawyer is contemplating a lawsuit – or multiple lawsuits – on behalf of victims of a Norval Morrisseau art fraud based in the Thunder Bay area.

Jonathan Sommer was the initial trial lawyer in a suit filed by Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn against a Toronto art gallery.

Hearn had alleged that a work he purchased in 2005 was counterfeit.

In 2018, the Superior Court justice who heard the case said "I do not doubt the existence of a Thunder Bay-area fraud ring and the circulation of fraudulent paintings there."  

However he dismissed Hearn's claim that the work he purchased was a fraud, stating that the burden of proof had not been satisfied.

In 2019 the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the art gallery had breached a contract with Hearn when it sold him the Morrisseau painting with questionable provenance documents.

“With respect to the provenance statement, Mr. [the late Joseph] McLeod made a false representation, either knowing that it was false and without an honest belief in its truth, or he made the statement recklessly without caring whether it was true or false, with the intent that Mr. Hearn would rely upon it, which he did, to his personal loss,” the ruling stated.

McLeod’s estate was ordered to pay Hearn $50,000 for breach of contract and breach of the Sale of Goods Act, plus punitive damages of $10,000.

Morrisseau, who was born in the Thunder Bay district in 1932, originated the Woodland School of Indigenous art.

He died in 2007.

Sommer told TBNewswatch there may be a few thousand fake Morrisseau paintings.

That's based partly on the copious amounts of art supplies that were purchased in the Thunder Bay area by members of the fraud ring.

Sommer believes most of the counterfeits are in private hands, but some are in public collections, while others are still available for sale in various commercial galleries.

He notes that in the early 2000s, Morrisseau had his lawyers prepare several sworn declarations in which he identified a large number of paintings that bore his signature, but which he insisted were not by his hand.

Sommer said that, for galleries or other sellers, the court of appeal ruling means that if provenance is not accurate when they sell a piece, they may be liable "not just the price to return the painting but also the loss of investment value, and you can be punished with punitive damages."

He said he already has several clients who believe they are victims of the fraud and want to be part of a larger effort to seek redress and to see the wrongdoers punished.

Now he's reaching out to other individuals who may be wondering if the Morrisseau piece they own is a fraud.

Sommer's website lists several questions owners may want to ask about their purchase, notably whether it's signed on the back with a black drybrush signature, which he calls "a red flag."

In 2019, a documentary on the Thunder Bay fraud ring was promoted as the uncovering of the largest art fraud in Canadian history.

Producer Jamie Kastner described the defiling of a great Canadian artist, and "horrible abuse of Indigenous people."

Sommer, who has seen Kastner's There Are No Fakes, said the fact that much of it is focused on racism and exploitation is entirely appropriate under the circumstances.

A spokesperson for Ontario Provincial Police said Monday that the OPP and the Thunder Bay Police Service continue to jointly investigate an alleged fraud scheme related to Norval Morrisseau paintings.

The spokesperson said no other information can be provided while the investigation is ongoing.

Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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