Woodland art market took a hit over forgery rumours. Can it recover after a police crackdown?

A woman surveys the painting ‘Copper Thunderbird’ by Norval Morrisseau on display during a media tour of the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, in Ottawa on June 7, 2017.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It was the kind of call every honourable gallery owner dreads.

In the early 2000s, Bill Mayberry, president of Mayberry Fine Art, had just placed a newspaper ad promoting a painting by renowned Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, considered the grandfather of the Woodland school of art. He was looking forward to calls from prospective buyers. Instead he got a warning that has stuck with him for two decades.

The caller was Ritchie Sinclair, a former student of Mr. Morrisseau’s.

“Ritchie told me the painting I was selling was a fake,” Mr. Mayberry recalls. “I immediately gave it back to the consignor.”

For three decades, the market for Woodland art – characterized by vibrant colours and dark outlines – has been suppressed by rumours of extensive forgeries. Gallery owners say that Woodland artists earning $5,000 a painting could make 10 times that in a clean market. Now, with police dismantling three Morriseau fraud rings in what investigators are calling the biggest case of art fraud in the country’s history, there’s hope that a measure of prosperity will return to one of the three main schools of Indigenous art.

Last Friday, Thunder Bay Police and Ontario Provincial Police announced they had arrested eight people on 40 counts including forgery, fraud and participating in a criminal organization. They said up to 6,000 fake Morrisseau pieces have swamped the market since the mid-1990s, with a value of up to $100-million.

The announcement came as a relief to Mr. Mayberry, Mr. Sinclair and a handful of academics, artists and collectors who have risked personal harassment and legal liability to identify suspected fakes over the years.

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When Mr. Mayberry realized the extent of the forgeries diluting the market, he analyzed every Morrisseau he’d sold and determined three were likely forgeries. He called each buyer and bought back the paintings at a cost of around $20,000.

He eventually developed a keen eye for suspicious Morrisseaus. But with the whiff of scandal hanging over Woodland work, prices hit a ceiling.

Mr. Morrisseau died in 2007. The reality of the situation hit him hard toward the end of his life, when he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. “When the fakes started appearing, pieces were going for 10 cents on the dollar,” said Cory Dingle, who represents the Morrisseau estate. “He needed extra money for his health, for a wheelchair, and all of a sudden we can’t make a dollar. It was extremely detrimental for Norval to watch something he’d built up for 50 years collapse before his eyes.”

The average price for a Morrisseau is about $15,000, Mr. Mayberry said, with rare sales reaching as high as $300,000. Other Woodland masters such as Goyce Kakegamic, Roy Thomas and Carl Ray fetch around $5,000.

By comparison, Mr. Mayberry said that prices for work by contemporary Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle range between $100,000 and $4-million.

“The only way to release the market is to separate the fakes from the real things,” Mr. Sinclair said. “As Morrisseau goes, so goes all those who spawn from him.”

It is easier said than done. Mr. Morrisseau tried to do that work himself during his final years, identifying 175 imitations held by six galleries in Ontario and Alberta. Police say the alleged frauds continued to grow.

Norval Morrisseau with his painting ‘Mother Earth’ at the Pollock Gallery, on Aug. 18, 1975.James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail

Others have taken up the battle in spite of legal and professional pressure. In about 2008, Mr. Sinclair established a website displaying upward of 1,000 Morrisseau pieces he identified as forgeries. Since then he’s faced extensive litigation from collectors and gallery owners whose inventory he placed under suspicion. One gallery owner, Joe McLeod, even had Mr. Sinclair arrested for harassment; Mr. Sinclair said he spent 24 hours in jail. The charge was dismissed more than a year later when Mr. McLeod failed to attend trial and the Crown declined to call any evidence.

“That’s the worst thing that happened to me, but the list goes on for a mile,” Mr. Sinclair said.

Gallery owners and the Morrisseau estate have been hesitant to authenticate the artist’s works because of the looming threat of litigation, should someone’s prized piece be appraised as a forgery.

Some, however, formed the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society to catalogue works that could be reliably traced to the late master. And several are now working on the Morrisseau Project, aimed at creating a database and comprehensive book of verified work produced between 1955 and 1985.

For up-and-coming Woodland artists, the notoriety is a cultural and financial affront. Woodland style is deeply rooted in Anishinaabe cultural items, such as birchbark scrolls. Artistic disrespect is cultural disrespect.

“It’s so hurtful to see this,” said Autumn Smith, 25, who started creating Woodland paintings under the name Mishiikenh Kwe in 2016 and now earns up to $10,000 for a piece. “I’m thinking of moving away from the style entirely.”

Ms. Smith, who resides on Magnetawan First Nation in Ontario, has one piece of advice for prospective Woodland buyers. “I’ve been telling people worried about fakes that they should be buying from living Indigenous artists,” she said.

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