THUNDER BAY — Police say a major investigation into forged Norval Morrisseau paintings that began in Thunder Bay revealed a sprawling fraud scheme they believe is the largest in art history.
The results of a joint Thunder Bay Police Service-Ontario Provincial Police investigation, dubbed Project Totton, were announced by police on Friday.
The lead investigators in that operation, Det.-Sgt. Jason Rybak of the TBPS and Det.-Insp. Kevin Veillieux of the OPP, gave insight into the years-long investigation in an interview with TBnewswatch.
Both pointed to the staggering scale of what they described as three sometimes interconnected fraud rings, with two based in Thunder Bay and one in Southern Ontario.
Police say they seized more than 1,000 paintings, prints, and other works believed to be fakes that were distributed across Canada and to countries including China, Germany, and the United States
The total number of works produced by the fraud rings is unknown, but Rybak cited an estimate of 4,000 to 6,500.
Given the likely average value of those works, he believes that could qualify the fraud schemes as the largest in history.
“Around $15,000 per painting would be reasonable. I think that’s on the low end,” he said. “If you do the math, you’re up around $100 million. We believe this is the biggest art fraud in world history."
The investigation culminated on Wednesday, when nearly a hundred police officers, including 25 from the Thunder Bay Police Service, apprehended eight different suspects across a number of communities.
“Their arrests mark the dismantling of three distinct groups that we believe exploited Mr. Morrisseau’s name and his art legacy,” Veillieux said at Friday’s press conference. “These are not small, victimless crimes. These are people who took advantage of one man’s legacy in order to turn a profit for themselves.”
Police relied on interviews with peers, family, and acquaintances of Morrisseau, forensic art examination, and more than 17 terabytes of data seized from electronic devices in the course of the operation.
Rybak said the investigation took shape in 2019 while he was involved with a separate investigation into the 1984 murder of Scott Dove, a cold case police have long said they want to crack.
A family member of Dove’s asked Rybak if he’d seen the documentary There Are No Fakes, which was released that year and explored allegations of fraud rings creating forged Morrisseau works, and also touched on Dove’s death.
That led Rybak to contact Kevin Hearn, best known as a member of the Barenaked Ladies, whose discovery he had purchased a fake Morrisseau work was a focus of the documentary.
That was the jumping-off point for a formal investigation, Rybak said, but Thunder Bay police soon realized the case went well beyond the city, and local officers’ experience with major art fraud.
Investigators reached out to the FBI’s Art Crime Team based in Los Angeles for guidance, and the OPP joined as investigating partners in 2020.
The Thunder Bay Police Service committed significant resources to the investigation, assigning three officers from its Major Crimes Unit to the operation full-time for around two-and-a-half years.
“That’s a big resource drain for our service, but [police leadership] believed in this investigation,” Rybak said. “We treated it like a homicide. We never left any stone unturned, we talked to every single person we could that wanted to talk to us.”
In comments at Friday’s press conference, TBPS interim Chief Dan Taddeo said the case was important not only because of the scale of the fraud, but because it had defiled the legacy of a towering figure in the world of Indigenous art and culture who also hailed from the region.
Police allege David Voss, 51, of Thunder Bay, was the “architect” of a small group of forgers that began operating around 1996 in the city.
“He forged some paintings himself before growing his organization into a full assembly line of painters,” said Veillieux. “He orchestrated all aspects of this operation: He was responsible for selling and consigning these fakes.”
Those paintings were sold around the world, police said.
Gary Lamont, 61, of Thunder Bay, is alleged to have orchestrated a second Thunder Bay-based operation beginning around 2002 using artists including Benjamin Morrisseau, Norval’s nephew.
“The big difference is Gary took advantage of two Indigenous artists, one being [Benjamin] Morrisseau, and one being Tim Tait… and utilized their skill set, because they’re very talented Indigenous artists,” said Rybak.
Lamont has previously pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual assault from incidents that took place between 1993 and 2007, involving male victims between the ages of 17 and 24 years old, and was arrested on a new charge last year.
Still, police said they had not uncovered evidence of abuse in the forgery investigation, and Benjamin Morrisseau is among those charged with forgery, despite investigators’ suggestion he was taken advantage of.
Finally, Jeffrey Cowan, 47, of Niagara-on-the-Lake, is alleged to have masterminded a third fraud ring based in Southern Ontario, beginning around 2008.
Cowan provided forged documentation on the provenance of the fakes, and made up stories about their origins, said Veillieux.
James White is accused of acting as a major distributor of forgeries and prints of forgeries for the Cowan group.
White allegedly enlisted David Bremner to produce certificates of authenticity and complete appraisals for hundreds of Norval Morrisseau fakes.
Those items were often billed as bargains in less prominent or official art sales, before being resold at higher prices and sometimes making their way up to institutions including galleries, investigators said.
The three groups worked independently, but there were “linkages and associations between them.”
Rybak emphasized that information provided by peers and experts in the art world was key, along with physical evidence.
“We went out and tracked down people who were involved with Norval from the early days, including two of the surviving members of the Indigenous Group of Seven to talk about how he painted, the styles, what he did, what he didn’t do,” he said. “That was a big component of this.”
That included working with the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, which has one of the largest collections of Morrisseau’s art.
The police investigation was in some sense a long time coming.
Allegations that substantial numbers of forged Morrisseau works were circulating had swirled for over two decades, with the artist himself identifying scores of pieces attributed to him that he said were not by his hand.
The RCMP had previously investigated allegations of art fraud involving Morrisseau, but closed the investigation in 2010, when it passed on its files to the Thunder Bay Police Service, according to reporting by Maclean’s magazine.
In a statement, Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare said he was thankful police had acted on the information, saying the charges announced Friday helped bring closure to Indigenous communities in the region.
“I’m pleased to learn the forgery allegations of Norval Morrisseau’s art were taken seriously, and that the OPP and Thunder Bay Police Service continued to investigate,” he said. “Those who profited from these fraudulent paintings, prints, and other art work will be held fully accountable. Now, the focus can return to Norval Morrisseau’s revolutionary, culturally and historically meaningful work.”
Police said they don't expect to press further charges, but are open to new evidence.
The revelations are likely to cause many owners of Norval Morrisseau paintings and prints to question their authenticity.
Investigators expressed sympathy at Friday’s press conference, but emphasized their police forces are not equipped to handle what could be an influx of requests to authenticate the works.
“I’m sure there are many people who are wondering if the Morrisseau painting they have is authentic, and I know there may be some people who feel embarrassed they fell victim to these crimes. I empathize with you,” said Rybak. “Fraudsters are opportunistic. They’re good at what they do.”
Instead, police encourage anyone who believes they may be in possession of a fraudulent work of art to seek legal advice by contacting a lawyer or the Law Society of Ontario, which operates a service providing free half-hour consultations.