Opinion: The fool’s gold of art forgery is a problem of the art world’s own making

The painting on the left is not a real Norval Morrisseau: It is one of several forgeries seized by the Ontario Provincial Police from a multimillion-dollar forgery operation. At right, for comparison, is a genuine painting from 1975 of the Ojibwe artist’s wife and daughter.Ontario Provincial Police/AFP via Getty Images; McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Jon S. Dellandrea is an art historian and collector, the chair emeritus of the Art Canada Institute, and the author of The Great Canadian Art Fraud: Forgeries of The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson.

To some, particularly outside Canada, Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau was “the Picasso of the North.” But for generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada, he was a trailblazer.

Born on the Sand Point reserve in 1932 and raised by his maternal grandparents, he was taken to St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School in Fort William, Ont., at the age of 6, before dropping out of school altogether by the time he was 10. As he developed as a painter, inspired by Indigenous mythology and traditional pictography, he founded the influential Woodland School and his exhibits appeared around the world, from the National Gallery of Canada to the Smithsonian in Washington.

“At a time when enforced assimilation was national policy and First Nations had only recently been accorded the right to vote in federal elections,” wrote Carleton University art history professor Carmen Robertson, “Morrisseau’s paintings stood out because few Indigenous people made art that was viewed as contemporary within the narrow framework accepted in mainstream cultural circles.”

Norval Morrisseau works on a painting in Tom Thomson’s cabin in Kleinburg, Ont., in 1979.Jack Dobson/The Globe and Mail

By the time Morrisseau died in 2007, at the age of 75, he had become widely admired for his remarkable talent and work. The art market reflected this, too, with significant prices and demand for his pieces.

And for all his achievements and all of his fame, he also earned interest from forgers, driven by an art market fuelled by greed. That was true in life – he himself identified at least 175 fakes in six galleries during his lifetime – and it is also true in death.

Earlier this month, in what one police officer called “the biggest art fraud in world history,” eight men based out of Ontario were accused of operating three groups that mass-produced forged Norval Morrisseau paintings, which were then sold for tens of millions of dollars. More than 1,000 works were seized; police say that at least one of the groups issued faked certificates of authenticity. Many buyers have since learned that they were apparently swindled, and the underlying market for Morrisseau paintings have collapsed.

The schemes appear to have unravelled after the release of a 2019 documentary, There Are No Fakes, which followed Kevin Hearn – a member of Canadian band the Barenaked Ladies – as he sued a gallery that sold him what was later flagged as a fake Morrisseau. “I started thinking, well, how many other people have been ripped off by this guy or other people?” Mr. Hearn told The Canadian Press in 2020. Police proceeded to investigate many of those accused in the film.

But the news appears to have been met by Canadians at large with a relative shrug, likely because there is a feeling that the “other people” Mr. Hearn is thinking about are wealthy, or are public figures, or otherwise not badly dented by losing a few million dollars.

The damage that art fraud wreaks, however, goes deeper than that. “These are not small, victimless crimes,” said Ontario Provincial Police Detective Inspector Kevin Veillieux, who is managing the Morrisseau forgery case. “These are people that took advantage of one man’s legacy in order to turn a profit for themselves.” These crimes are certainly not new to the art world, either – and they are an issue of the art world’s own making.

The allegedly forged Morrisseaus seized by the OPP were the product of three separate groups. It’s not clear how many works they made, but it could be 4,500 to 6,000, said the lead investigator, Detective Staff Sergeant Jason Rybak of the Thunder Bay police.OPP/AFP via Getty Images

Forgery has long been a part of the story of art collecting. In 1496, a 21-year-old artist in Rome produced a marble sculpture of a sleeping Eros, the Roman god of love and desire. The piece was buried in the ground to quickly produce the effect of aging, and when it was dug up a dealer sold it as an authentic antiquity to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a serious collector of ancient art. A few years later, Riario discovered the real origin of the sculpture – but rather than accuse the young artist of forgery, he chose to become his patron. Why? He was struck by the talent of the artist, who history now remembers as the Renaissance giant Michelangelo.

Fast forward to the 1930s and 40s. Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter of remarkable skill, was more than a little irritated that his talent was not appropriately recognized by the nasty community of art critics and curators at the time. His revenge? Fake the work of the famous 17th-century painters of the Dutch Golden Age, particularly the work of Johannes Vermeer, the creator of Girl With A Pearl Earring.

Eventually, his country’s government charged him with fraud and aiding and abetting the enemy, accusing him of selling national treasures – such as Vermeer paintings – to the Nazis. But after his arrest, van Meegeren revealed that the paintings were forgeries.

Although he died fairly young in 1947 at the age of 58, van Meegeren had the last laugh. Movies have been made and books have been written about his story, and his fake art sold for the equivalent of US$250-million in today’s currency – an amount that includes the money defrauded from the German Nazi leaders who bought the “Vermeer.”

After the Second World War, he managed to convince the Dutch courts that the sale was an effort to outwit the Nazis, rather than to simply profit from them, and he received just a one-year prison sentence for forgery, of which he served only one day before dying.

Issuing fake certificates of authenticity is not new to the art world, either. Dealer labels are not difficult to reproduce, and faking stamps, such as the one that Group of Seven painter J.E.H. MacDonald designed to authenticate the works of Tom Thomson after his peer’s drowning in 1917, does not take a lot of engineering genius.

Neither this Tom Thomson estate stamp nor this painting are genuine, but forgers took care to make them look that way.Collection of Jon S. Dellandrea, photographed by Doug Nicholson

Canada has had its own well-publicized art frauds prior to the Morrisseau affair, too. Significant as that scheme is believed to be, the Canadian art world has seen forgeries on a major scale before: of the works of the Group of Seven, the Painters Eleven, the Beaver Hall Group and the Painters of the Montée Saint-Michel. Unfortunately, the public’s memory is short, and so – perhaps not surprisingly – history repeats itself.

But the Group of Seven example is particularly instructive. In the early 1960s, in a dramatic court case that shook the Canadian art community, gallery owner Leslie W. Lewis and art dealer Neil Sharkey were sent to jail for duping the public with fraudulent art of substantial quantities and not insubstantial prices.

The similarities between the 1963 and 2023 cases are interesting. They both include a concerted effort by the Ontario Provincial Police to track down the sources of the fake paintings and to bring those responsible to justice; they both included some prominent Canadians, as well as some ordinary collectors looking for a bargain; and both sparked a response that perhaps none of this really mattered, as ordinary people were not harmed. Rather, the argument went, it was a few rich doctors, lawyers and entertainers who could afford to spend the money – and lose it to fraudsters, too.

But the judge saw things differently in 1963. “It was the most reprehensible type of fraud and it is difficult to know what effect it will have on many people,” said Justice Robert Forsyth. “It will shake the confidence of art lovers.” That argument should be considered today.

One of the most interesting facts I discovered in doing research for my book was that in the early 1960s, it was an open secret that some Canadian art dealers knew that fake European art had been dumped in Canada for many years – and were content to sell the works all the same. Lewis, one of the dealers sentenced to jail in 1963, had been selling in excess of 580 paintings a year through Ward-Price auctioneers, which at that time was Canada’s largest auction house. We don’t know definitively how many of those paintings were fake, but the number was large. How that auction house escaped prosecution remains a mystery: Ben Ward-Price testified that he just sold what was consigned to him and that he was “ignorant” of the art offered, even though the firm advertised “expert appraisals.”

What we do know is that many mainstream dealers in Canadian art had, for many years, turned a blind eye to this aspect of the junk art market until junk Canadian art began to appear. Suddenly, their core business was being threatened. Ignorance of the issue quickly morphed into righteous indignation.

Collector Max Stern, shown with wife Iris in 1952, warned of the dangers of forgery to the Canadian art market.Concordia University/The Associated Press

In 1962, Max Stern, then-owner of Montreal’s venerable Dominion Gallery, wrote to the artist Robert Pilot – at the time, the president of the Royal Canadian Academy – to make the case that the fakes were an existential threat to the Canadian art market. “Why is the sale of fakes so dangerous?” Stern wrote. “The buyer who has acquired a fake and finds out he has a worthless object on his hands will never buy another painting again, be it by a living artist or an artist from the past.”

Stern, who wrote an op-ed for The Globe and Mail at the time, went on to say: “Among Canadian fakes are fakes of paintings by A.Y. Jackson, Tom Thomson, J.E.H. MacDonald, Clarence Gagnon, J.W. Morrice and many others. Canada is unfortunately also flooded with fakes which are imported from abroad. We are flooded with fake Corot, Constable and Krieghoff, only to mention a few. The educational and cultural damage to our youth who grow up with this trash, and are even taught to admire it, is immense and the financial loss goes into the millions of dollars.”

Now we find ourselves many years later with the Morrisseau case in the headlines, and with tales of art forgery increasingly becoming everyday news. Just last summer, allegations about forgeries of another popular art icon – the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died tragically at the age of 27 and whose works are worth millions of dollars in the art auction market today – prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to raid the Orlando Museum of Art. And work by Maud Lewis has been selling for record prices, including a $350,000 sale last year for one painting that the Nova Scotia icon had traded for a grilled cheese sandwich. Those prices, as well as a folksy story that makes authentication difficult – she reportedly produced two or three small paintings a day, many of which were sold for a few dollars near a Nova Scotia highway – have attracted forgers, including her own husband, who reportedly sold fakes under her name after she died.

So what do we make of all this? Why does art fraud happen?

Police investigated the forged Morrisseaus after a 2019 documentary, There Are No Fakes, showed Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies tracing the origins of a painting he bought. The director, Jamie Kastner, is fighting the OPP in court after they seized his footage for the investigation.OPP/AFP via Getty Images

The simple explanation is that humans like to own something that other humans view as valuable and rather cool: Gucci bags, Rolex watches … the list goes on, including that great painting that might hang on your a wall, regardless of whether it’s real.

But there is something unique to this when it comes to art. Art is meant to induce powerful feelings in a viewer, but that collides with the values of the art world – an illogical enterprise that, at its core, is aimed at manufacturing a small group of stars to worship and then hyping them up.

A leading art dealer once told me that his principal talent was his “great eye,” and I never fully understood this comment. If the “great eye” is the appreciation of the artistic talent of a painter, then I think I understand the concept because I, and many people around the world, have one of those “great eyes.” If the great eye is to look to the bottom corner of a painting to recognize the signature, and from that to attribute value, then that feels like something else altogether.

This was an issue even in the 1960s case. “Art consists of lines on a canvas. You either like it or you don’t,” Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson testified while on the stand.

A.Y. Jackson and A.J. Casson, then aged 88 and 70, chat in front of a Casson painting at a synagogue dinner in 1970.John McNeill / The Globe and Mail

A.J. Casson, then the youngest living member of the Group of Seven, also grappled with the debate during the trial. The painter had worked directly with the Ontario Provincial Police on the forgery investigation; when newbie OPP inspector James Erskine told the Art Gallery of Ontario that he knew very little about Canadian art, the gallery advised him to reach out to Casson, who agreed to help because he cared deeply about the reputation of his colleagues whose work was being faked. That partnership led to the identification of more than 100 fake paintings, which were then seized – a remarkable effort that earned Casson a special OPP badge, which read “Art Advisor.” As a result, Casson also took the stand, where he was cross-examined by the lawyer for Sharkey.

“Would you agree that there are two types of people, those who admire a sunset and those who admire themselves for admiring a sunset?” the lawyer asked. Casson paused, and then responded: “Yes, I see what you mean. These people were buying names, just names, names and nothing more.”

So, the market creates stars – but the logical endpoint of this may be that the signatures of the stars are made to matter much more than the quality of the art. This is why the work of some artists of quite remarkable talents languish in the abyss of the ignored, while lesser talents find their works featured in the glossy promotions of the next great exhibition. There are many stories of galleries around the world paid by promoters to feature the works of one profit-making darling or another. This is the conundrum of the art world.

The art market often feels like penny stocks in the mining industry: Investors buy in when exploratory drilling is going on, and then try to sell at a profit while the hype machine props up the share price. Never mind that the mine may not even lead to any actual extraction, and the stock could be deemed worthless: The profits are the thing.

A Christie’s auction preview in Hong Kong features a work by Jackson Pollock, one of the postwar era’s most frequently forged artists.Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

So what can the art community do to instill confidence, celebrate talent and recognize actual value, rather than only the monetary kind?

On one level, I think the answer is clear: We need rigorous scholarship and serious academic study of art, confidence in the integrity of auction houses and dealers, and meticulous attention to “real” provenance, as opposed to the kind that is easily faked, such as stamps or certificates. Jackson Pollock, for instance, is perhaps the most forged artist of the postwar period, and authentication of his work increasingly relies on scientific analysis, including by spectroscopic techniques that compare the pigments on a given painting against the remnants of pigments on Pollock’s studio floor.

Canada can even claim some credit for the introduction of scientific rigour to the authentication of art. The late Dr. Nathan Stolow of the National Gallery of Canada played a key role in the Group of Seven forgery case by providing analysis and forensic examination, techniques that he would share with other conservators and make integral to National Gallery collections.

In the case of Morrisseau, there is the added layer that he was Indigenous, and Indigenous art is a field that continues to be understudied. “With Morrisseau, a large reason for the ease of forgery has had to do with the fact that until very recently a scarce amount of attention was given to Canadian Indigenous art,” Dr. Sara Angel, the founder of the Art Canada Institute, told me. “To spot a forgery one needs to know what one is looking at. Although Morrisseau is a star, and despite the attention of prominent scholars, the scholarship on him still needs to catch up.”

But ultimately, the art world needs to change how it sells itself. If the industry continues to be defined by stars and icons – about the names, and not the works – it will continue to invite fakery.

It’s only appropriate that it appears to have been Kevin Hearn who helped launch the investigation into the Morrisseau fakes. After all, his band, the Barenaked Ladies, gave the world an iconic song about the pleasures of wealth. “If I had a million dollars,” it goes, “I’d buy you some art, a Picasso or a Garfunkel.”

What is the punchline here? If you have money, flaunt it – and “famous art” is a good way to do it. Whether it’s a painting by a cubist legend or by a singer-songwriter doesn’t matter: What matters is the money. And as long as that’s the case, the art world will always have forgery as a problem.

Video: How the real art gets made

In 2019, The Globe and Mail went behind the canvas with Cree painter Kent Monkman in his Toronto studio. From inspiration to final painting, how does Monkman create large history paintings that have sold for as much as $90,000? Watch to learn more.

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