Art fraud investigation reveals fake Norval Morrisseau painting was on display at Winnipeg gallery

A case investigators have called Canada’s largest art fraud investigation has revealed one of thousands of paintings falsely attributed to renowned Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau was once on display in Winnipeg’s biggest art gallery.

The fake artwork, called Astral Plain Scouts, was donated to the Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq in 2000 by a private collector who got it from a gallery in Thunder Bay, Ont., said Stephen Borys, the Winnipeg gallery’s director and CEO. 

The piece was last shown at the gallery in 2013 and is now in storage, after police notified the gallery on Friday it was confirmed to be a fraud following a years-long investigation.

“It’s extraordinary that the work that was in question here … was certified by the Canadian Cultural Export Property Review Board. It was certified by all appraisers,” Borys said. “And yet today, as we look at it, we realize it is part of a larger body of works that are fraudulent.”

Morrisseau, who died in 2007 at age 75, was a renowned artist from the Ojibway Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation in northwestern Ontario. He’s known as the founder of the Woodland school of art, and his work has been exhibited in galleries across Canada.

Earlier this month, the man behind a scheme to create fraudulent Morrisseau pieces pleaded guilty in an Ontario court to his role operating a fraud ring out of Thunder Bay between 1996 and 2019.

David Voss oversaw the creation of forged artworks falsely attributed to Morrisseau, according to an agreed statement of facts read in court. He was among eight people charged with a total of 40 offences last year, following an investigation into the fake paintings.

Jason Rybak, a detective staff sergeant with the Thunder Bay Police Service who worked on the investigation since it began in 2019, described Voss as “the architect of the whole scheme.” 

A camera captures a picture of a man walking by a painting done in the woodland style.
A person walks past the Norval Morrisseau painting Androgyny, right, at the National Gallery of Canada’s contemporary art galleries in Ottawa in 2017. Morrisseau is known as the founder of the Woodland school of art, and his work has been exhibited in galleries across Canada. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Rybak said investigators on the case were quickly drawn to Astral Plain Scouts — one of the 11 paintings attributed to Morrisseau in the Winnipeg gallery’s collection — in part because of a black dry brush signature on its back, which was a feature found on other fraudulent Morrisseau works.

Investigators also later determined Voss used a “paint-by-numbers” process that involved drawing an outline in pencil, then marking the areas to be coloured in with letter codes corresponding to different colours — a process outlined in the statement of facts read in court.

Police were ultimately able to confirm the paintings from Voss’s operation were fakes through infrared reflectography, Rybak said, which showed the markings underneath the paint.

He said while police have gotten their hands on many of the roughly 1,700 fake Morrisseau paintings Voss was responsible for, they aren’t in a position to seize them all.

That’s in part because they aren’t concerned that owners like WAG-Qaumajuq — which said it offered to turn over the painting — will sell the piece, and because police would have trouble trying to store that many artworks.

Galleries should be more proactive: lawyer

Jonathan Sommer, a lawyer specializing in art fraud and the CEO of Morrisseau Art Consulting Inc., which examines work attributed to the artist, said it’s “kind of incredible” the fraud that involved the piece at the Winnipeg gallery got to be as big as it did.

It should also be a lesson for museums and galleries to actively police the authenticity of the works in major collections, he said.

“They can do that in terms of having provisions and agreements with donors. They can do that in terms of upping the amount of effort they make to authenticate artworks that are donated or that they acquire, or even ones that have been sitting in their collections for a long time,” Sommer told host Faith Fundal on CBC Manitoba’s Up to Speed.

“I think this almost has to be an ongoing process that is just part of the acquisition and the collections procedure.”

Sommer said he thinks there are still thousands of fake Morrisseau pieces out there, between fraudulent paintings and unauthorized prints of the artist’s work.

WAG-Qaumajuq director Borys said the art gallery will learn from the incident as it does from every acquisition, and that it plans to continue to co-operate with any further investigation into fraudulent Morrisseau works.

“We do this not just to honour the family and the descendants, but also to contribute to the overall research in Canadian art history at this moment with Indigenous art,” Borys said, adding no concerns have been raised about the gallery’s other Morrisseau works.

“There are many, many victims here, beginning with the artist — the artist’s legacy, his family, the fact that fraudulent activities were going on during his lifetime. This is nothing new. And there are the victims … who collected, supported, exhibited, sold what they thought were rightful works.”

Painting in Winnipeg Art Gallery collection part of investigation into Norval Morrisseau fakes

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Duration 2:15

A case investigators have called Canada’s largest art fraud investigation has revealed one of thousands of paintings falsely attributed to renowned Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau was once on display in Winnipeg’s biggest art gallery.