Thunder Bay·Audio

'So many wild twists and turns': film explores alleged forgery of thousands of Norval Morrisseau works

Documentary explores what the filmmaker says could be the largest art fraud scam in Canadian history — a scam that has ties to Thunder Bay.

Documentary explores what the filmmaker says could be the largest art fraud scam in Canadian history 

Kevin Hearn appears in a scene from the new documentary There Are No Fakes. (Cave 7 Productions/Supplied)

A  documentary explores what the filmmaker says could be the largest art fraud scam in Canadian history — a scam that allegedly has ties to Thunder Bay.

There Are No Fakes premieres on Monday, April 29 at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, and examines questions about the authenticity of thousands of paintings purported to be by the late, and renowned, Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau.

"We're talking in the neighbourhood of three thousand paintings here, worth conservatively $10,000 each," Jamie Kastner, the film's director and producer said. "So that's $30 million worth of art."

There Are No Fakes grew out of a conversation Kastner had with his friend Kevin Hearn, of Barenaked Ladies fame.

"I approached him a couple of years ago about, in fact, something completely different," Kastner said. "A musical project that wound up not panning out at that time."

"But he said to me 'I'm involved in this court case, maybe that would be of interest to you.'"

That court case was a lawsuit filed by Hearn against a Toronto gallery over concerns about the authenticity of a Morrisseau painting — titled Spirit Energy of Mother Earth — that Hearn had bought there in 2005.

Kastner said doubts about the painting began to surface three years later, after Hearn was invited to guest curate an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Norval Morrisseau as artist-in-residence in the Thomson Shack at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, Ont., on July 11, 1979. (Ian Samson/McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives)

"This Morrisseau painting of his, or what he believed to be a Morrisseau, was sort of the centrepiece of his collection," Kastner said. "And shortly after it went up on the walls, complaints were made to the then-curator of Canadian art, Gerald McMaster."

Hearn was then told that the painting's authenticity couldn't be confirmed. Spirit Energy of Mother Earth had to come down.

"I began to learn about this story, first from Kevin and his lawyer, and even though this was coming from someone I knew, I almost couldn't believe it," Kastner said. "There were so many wild twists and turns."

"It was only when I started diving into the material and the research, and starting to meet the characters first-hand, that I really saw that everything he had told me, and then some, was true."

Hearn's lawsuit was dismissed in 2018. In his decision, Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan wrote there was no proof that the painting Hearn had purchased was a fake.

"Spirit Energy of Mother Earth is one more painting — an interesting and beautiful one, if I may say so — that is possibly an authentic Norval Morrisseau and possibly not," Morgan wrote. "As a matter of law, what is important is that a tie goes to the defendants."

Filmmaker Jamie Kastner's new documentary There Are No Fakes explores questions around the authenticity of thousands of Norval Morrisseau paintings. (Cave 7 Productions/Supplied)

The Morrisseau dispute over the paintings involves two "factions of people, most of whom are white, incidentally, and each side is claiming to be the true defenders of this Indigenous artist's legacy," Kastner said.

That's where the film's title comes from: There Are No Fakes is a "kind of refrain" heard from of people on one side of the dispute.

"They are, indeed, collectors and dealers in this disputed species of Morrisseau paintings," Kastner said.

The dispute is heated, he said, and includes multiple lawsuits, gallery windows smashed with rocks, and even physical altercations.

Kastner said the film wasn't approached in a "partisan way," and includes representation from people on both sides of the dispute.

"We did get extensive interviews ... with people on both sides of it," Kastner said. "We were able to witness the highly-charged reactions and emotions that are churning through this whole story."

"It would get very intense," he said. "People have a lot at stake, on all sides, in this story, and they wound some saying some pretty amazing things."

"They opened up on camera, and it will be up to the audience to judge them."

Police investigation

Kastner's research also led him to Thunder Bay where, Morgan's ruling states, "there is evidence of the existence of a forgery ring" in the city, which focussed on replicating Morrisseau's style of painting.

Thunder Bay police didn't immediately provide a comment for this story. However, an earlier story on the Hearn lawsuit included a statement by Thunder Bay police spokesman Chris Adams, who confirmed an investigation into the alleged forgeries took place in 2000.

No charges were laid, and "there is no ongoing investigation," Adams stated at the time.

There is also evidence, Morgan wrote, that the person who ran the gallery where Hearn purchased his painting "may have purchased some works that trace to this source."

Despite that, Morgan writes there wasn't any actual evidence that connected Spirit Energy of Mother Earth to this alleged fraud ring.

Still, Kastner did come to Thunder Bay while making the film. In the city, things took a dark turn.

"Following the ... provenance, which is to say the origin, of Kevin's painting up to Thunder Bay, it opens up a whole other crazy story of criminal activity going beyond art fraud," he said. "Well beyond art fraud, and into very dark places of abuse."

The film is now screening on CBC Gem.

Morrisseau 'vulnerable to forgery'

As to why Morrisseau's work could be such an attractive target, Kastner has some thoughts.

"He was a guy who came from abject poverty," Kastner said. "He came from Thunder Bay, or Fort William, as it then was, and grew up in Beardmore at a different point, and worked in the mines for a while, and was living in a shack with a dirt floor with his young family, before he was discovered in the early '60s, and suddenly made it big with his first big show."

And then, Kastner said, Morrisseau was a "rock star," and over the course of the next decade, the artist experienced "wild ups and downs."

"He went from riding limousines around Toronto to living in Stanley Park," Kastner said. "By all accounts of the people who knew him well, he had an incredible lust for life, basically. He embraced all of it, perhaps too much, but, you know, who's to say?"

"I think because of the wild ups and downs in life, because he was living in all sorts of circumstances over the course of his career, and, I think, because he was Indigenous, I think, for all of these reasons, it seems to me, that his work was vulnerable to forgery in this way."

Now streaming on CBC Gem.