Norval Morrisseau art forgery documentary gets TV premiere this weekend
There Are No Fakes to screen on TVO; film alleges a forgery ring operating out of Thunder Bay
One of the people at the centre of a documentary that calls into question the authenticity of thousands of paintings purportedly by renowned Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau is happy the film will be available to a much-larger audience in the coming days.
There Are No Fakes, which premiered in April at the Hot Docs festival, get its TV release this weekend, when it screens on TVO.
"You hear a lot about truth reconciliation these days, and I think this is an important part of it, is to hear these stories," said Kevin Hearn, who's experience buying a painting he believed to be a Morrisseau, but which turned out to be fake, led to the creation of the film.
"Though they may be painful and uncomfortable, it's important to know about them," Hearn said. "It helps us on the steps to reconciliation, which are education, awareness, understanding, and action, and I see this film as an action."
Hearn, who's best known as the keyboardist and guitarist for the Barenaked Ladies, purchased the painting, titled Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, from the Maslak-McLeod Gallery in Toronto in 2005.
"Of course, I'd read that there were fakes out there, to be careful," Hearn told CBC Thunder Bay. "I found myself at the Maslak-McLeod with Joe McLeod, who presented himself to me as someone who knew Norval and represented his children as artists, and I felt that that was a safe place to buy a painting by him."
Hearn would later lend Spirit Energy of Mother Earth to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where it was put on display. A short while after that, Hearn got some devastating news.
"The head curator of Canadian art at the time, Gerald McMaster, asked that the painting come down, along with two other smaller paintings that Joe had leant to the show," Hearn said. "I went and had tea and coffee with Gerald, and he said 'Kevin, I don't see the strokes of the master in these works.'"
Hearn said after that, he investigated further, and identified some red flags he was unaware of when he purchased the painting.
"When Joe sold me the painting, he showed me the back, and there was a ... signature," Hearn said. "[Morrisseau's] name was spelt out in English. As well, he'd drawn a little thunderbird, and Joe said when Norval found a painting special, or there was one he was particularly proud of, he would draw this thunderbird on the back."
"We looked at every collection of Norval Morrisseau works across the country in all the major public art institutions, and there was never a thunderbird on the back, there was never a signature on the back, on any of his well-known, undisputed works."
There were other signs, too, and Hearn said learning the truth about the painting was heartbreaking.
"After I talked to Joe McLeod, I felt a little angry, to be honest," he said. "I didn't default to litigation, I didn't jump up and down and say 'I'm going to sue you,' I actually went to him and said 'let's work together and really investigate this painting.'"
"But he wasn't interested in doing that."
That marked the beginning of a long legal odyssey for Hearn, which only ended in September 2019 when the Ontario Court of Appeals awarded Hearn $60,000.
In the ruling, the court said the gallery committed civil fraud, and breached its contract with Hearn, and the Sale of Goods Act.
"Mr. McLeod's assertion that the painting was genuine was only matched by his elusiveness in demonstrating that fact, which can only be explained as deliberate," the ruling states.
"With respect to the provenance statement, Mr. 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 film came about a couple of years ago, when director Jamie Kastner approached Hearn about a different documentary idea.
The original idea didn't pan out, Hearn said, but he used the opportunity to talk to Kastner about the fake Morrisseau.
"Be prepared," Hearn, who also scored the film, said of There are No Fakes. "It's a dark, twisted tale."
Thunder Bay police confirmed to CBC News on Friday there is an active criminal investigation into an alleged art fraud ring involving works purportedly created by Morrisseau.
There Are No Fakes screens on TVO on Feb. 1, 3, and 5.