THUNDER BAY – Two Norval Morrisseau paintings have been returned to Confederation College, 40 years after they were stolen from campus in an audacious heist.
The college welcomed their return with an official unveiling Thursday evening during its annual Celebration Showcasing Indigenous Cuisine, held for the first time since 2020.
That launched a years-long saga involving police, lawyers, and confidential negotiations to secure their return.
Going forward, the works will find a home at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, where they’ll be displayed immediately as part of a new exhibition and enter its permanent collection.
Morrisseau, the originator of the Woodland style of art, is believed to have painted the two works, titled Demi-God Figure 1 and Demi-God Figure 2, in 1970 or 1971 in Kenora.
The college's Kenora campus manager donated them to the school in the 1970s, said college president Kathleen Lynch.
In 1981, they were removed in a brazen daylight heist by two youths dressed as workers, who told staff they were moving the paintings to another location.
“Staff thought they were [workers] hired to do this, and they removed the paintings and walked away,” said Lynch.
Two paintings by Carl Ray, a friend and contemporary of Morrisseau’s, also “walked away” under similar circumstances around the same time.
That was the end of the story until 2018, when Mike Rozic, the college's director of public safety and risk management, got a call from a Toronto-based art curator who'd been offered the paintings for sale and recognized them.
“At first I thought it was a joke or something,” he said.
Instead, it turned into a complex legal matter. With the paintings located near Montréal, an investigation was launched by the Sureté du Québec, the provincial police force, and the college engaged a Québec-based lawyer.
Under Québec law, the college was not entitled to recover the paintings, Lynch said, and instead entered talks with the owner.
“It was a lot of negotiations," she said. "There were a lot of twists and turns. Someone had had them in their possession, didn’t realize they were stolen, and we couldn’t just claim them back."
At least one of the stolen Carl Ray paintings was also thought to have been identified in Quebec, but securing its return “was going to involve a whole protracted negotiation, and we said, sorry, it ends here,” Lynch said.
She expressed hope the owner of those works might one day decide to donate them back to the college.
For Rozic, Thursday marked a satisfying end to a years-long endeavour.
“It’s a good news story for our region,” he said. “To get them back here after 40 years is a wild story. You could really make a movie about it, to be honest.”
It appears the paintings made their way to Québec soon after being stolen, he said, but many details of exactly what transpired remain unclear, and others can’t be disclosed.
The agreement with the owner of the paintings involved a donation and “other transactions,” Lynch said, with the parties agreeing to keep details confidential.
The paintings are valued in the neighbourhood of $60,000 to $80,000 each, college and art gallery staff estimated (the college paid “nowhere near that” for their return, Lynch said).
The works will be displayed at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until mid-June as part of The World We Know, an exhibit showcasing recent additions to its permanent collection, which will feature a dozen artists and other newly acquired works by Morrisseau.
Gallery director Sharon Godwin said the paintings mark an interesting transition in Morrisseau’s development as an artist, when he was moving to larger tableaus and away from a more muted colour palette, after finding massive success during the 1960s.
“These paintings are a bit of a departure,” she said. “He’s still working on the Kraft paper background, but he’s adopted a lot of colour.”
“They’re important. I would say it’s kind of a pivot point into the ‘70s, where he started to paint this large, on canvas, bright colours... I think the ‘70s are some of his most interesting paintings.”
The gallery now has around 120 works by Morrisseau, who died in 2007 at the age of 75. It’s among the larger collections of his work world-wide, said Godwin.
The return of the paintings also resonated with Lillian Calder, a relative of Morrisseau’s and councillor with Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek, formerly Sand Point First Nation, where he spent parts of his childhood.
The artist remains an important figure in the community, she said. After recovering reserve land on the shores of Lake Nipigon in 2010, the First Nation named its first road Copper Thunderbird, after his Anishinaabe name.
"I was very moved by it," she said of the unveiling. "It made me happy to see everybody clapping and enjoying [seeing them]."
She remembers Morrisseau from childhood encounters as a kind soul, deeply spiritual, and armed with a good sense of humour. He'd be happy to know the paintings are back on public display, she believes.
"He trusted a lot of people with his paintings, and a lot was taken from him," she said. "That saddens my heart. But it’s good to see that people can now appreciate his art."
“Norval gave his paintings to everybody and anybody – it didn’t matter what race or what community you were from. He was very generous that way. So I’m sure he’d [be happy] for everybody to enjoy them. I think that’s why he painted, so he could get his stories out there.”
It’s why transferring the works to the gallery made sense, Lynch said.
“I think it’s the best ending to this story... I’d love to have them back at the college permanently, but we really aren’t equipped to care for them the way the gallery is. That was the best solution we could find, to donate them to the art gallery, where anyone can enjoy them.”
Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the road in Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek named in honour of Morrisseau as Thunderbird. In fact, the road is named Copper Thunderbird Road. TBnewswatch apologizes for the error.