How Norval Morrisseau, late 'Picasso of the North,' landed at centre of massive art forgery ring

The film There Are No Fakes looks to protect the late Norval Morrisseau's legacy, according to its director, Jamie Kastner.
A new documentary There Are No Fakes explores what the filmmaker Jamie Kastner says could be the largest art fraud scam in Canadian history. (Cave 7 Productions Inc.)

Norval Morrisseau (Copper Thunderbird) is a Canadian art icon known for his vivid paintings that blend traditional Indigenous themes with contemporary materials. The Anishinaabe artist died in 2007, but during his lifetime he became known as the grandfather of Indigenous art in Canada and the "Picasso of the North."

Toward the end of his life, Morrisseau was the centre of a strange controversy involving an alleged forgery ring that attempted to pass off possibly 3,000 fake paintings as originals. It all started with an unlikely person: Kevin Hearn of the band Barenaked Ladies.

In 2005, Hearn bought what he thought was a genuine Morrisseau painting, but when the dealer couldn't prove its authenticity, a dam broke open. For years now, there have been stories of a massive forgery ring pumping out thousands of fake Morrisseau paintings and earning millions of dollars in the process — but many people who own and sell these paintings strongly disagree with that allegation and insist that there are no fakes.

Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn spent $20,000 at a reputable Toronto gallery to purchase Norval Morrisseau's Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, but was surprised to discover that the painting's authenticity was being called into question. (Cave 7 Productions Inc.)

The documentary called There Are No Fakes, now streaming on CBC Gem, is now attempting to find answers to this complex story. Jamie Kastner is the film's director and Greg Hill is a curator at the National Gallery of Canada and a friend of the late Morrisseau. They joined q's Tom Power to tell us more about this dark underbelly of the Canadian art world.

Here is a part of their conversation.

There's a clip in the film where a friend of Norval Morrisseau's says he was the first Indigenous artist to get his work out of the gift shops and into the gallery. Tell us a bit more about his significance to Canadian art.

Greg Hill: Norval emerged in the galleries in the early '60s with those brightly coloured, sort of X-ray design style of paintings that had never been seen before and really took the mainstream art world by storm. He just blasted forward from there with multiple exhibitions, which spawned a whole number of artists to take up that style that he started what's commonly referred to as the Woodland School of Painting.

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)

Before we get into the darker, more complicated parts of this story, can you walk us through what makes an authentic Norval Morrisseau painting different than the alleged fakes?

Jamie Kastner: Coming to this as I did, as a non-expert at the other end of the spectrum from Greg, I discovered that it's fairly easy to recognize the disputed body of this work, which has been estimated to number around 3,000 alleged fake paintings. Typically, as I understand, Morrisseau signed his work on the front in a sequence of Cree syllabics, whereas the disputed works are almost all signed on the back in English, in what's called black dry brush paint.

Many of these reported fakes have been coming from Thunder Bay, Ont., and at the centre of this story is a man named Gary Lamont, who's currently serving a five-year sentence for sexual assault. How is he involved?

Kastner: Well, the suggestion in the film — we're giving a lot away here — is that he's the ringleader. In Thunder Bay he was known as a big drug dealer, and he was the suspect in a notorious murder case that remains unsolved. He's generally a nasty piece of work.

How much did Norval Morrisseau know about these alleged fakes?

Hill: I think it comes up in the film a little bit that Norval is in some ways complicit. Much of his early career can be learned about in correspondence, the many letters he would send to people that were willing to help him out  send him a few hundred dollars, and he would send them a painting. And so knowing very deeply and profoundly what that struggle is himself, he wanted his art to help somebody. But I think when it got to the scale that it did, and he became aware of that, he felt that something had to be done about it.

Does it matter that collectors may own an alleged fake painting?

Hill: It matters in the sense that Norval Morrisseau's legacy, his body of work, is confused and misunderstood. If there are really poor quality, bad paintings purported to be by him that aren't by him, it doesn't matter if they bought a painting and they love it.

Do you foresee a satisfying conclusion to the story?

Kastner: From my point of view, the fact that it's generating this discussion around this issue and the larger issues that the film raises is already a satisfying conclusion. We don't know where these dubious Morrisseaus will end, but I'm happy that this film is opening up the discussion.

There Are No Fakes is now streaming on CBC Gem. 

— Produced by ​Ben Jamieson

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, download our podcast or click 'Listen' near the top of this page.

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