New Guilty Plea in the “Norval Morrisseau” Forgery Ring Scheme

Posted on: July 8, 2024 by

Norval Morrisseau – also known by his Anishinaabe name “Copper Thunderbird” – left a lasting mark on contemporary Indigenous art in Canada with his vibrant and spiritually charged paintings. Active between the 1960s and 2000s, Norval Morrisseau achieved recognition through his distinctive Woodland-style art, exhibiting in galleries around the globe.

However, amidst this remarkable legacy, a darker narrative of forgery and exploitation has been emerging. In March 2023, Canadian authorities arrested eight individuals accused of creating between 4,500 to 6,000 Norval Morrisseau forgeries. The police reported that the total value of the alleged forgeries could approach $100 million, speculating that this is one of the largest art forgery schemes that has ever existed.

Norval Morrisseau, Artist and Shaman between Two Worlds, 1980

One of those eight individuals, David Voss, pleaded guilty to charges of forgery and fraud on 4 June, 2024 in front of the Ontario Superior Court in Thunder Bay. Voss was the leader of one of three fraud rings uncovered by the Ontario police’s Project Totton investigation, with Voss admitting that he produced thousands of counterfeit Morrisseau paintings from 1996 to 2019. He joins Gary Lamont, the leader of another forgery ring, who pleaded guilty to similar charges in December 2023. Voss’ sentencing hearing is scheduled for September 2024, while the other individuals arrested are still awaiting prosecution.

Norval Morrisseau and the Emergence of Fakes During his Lifetime

Prior to his death in 2007, Norval Morrisseau had started expressing concerns about the emergence of forgeries bearing his name and distinctive style. In vain, he voiced those worries to the media and police, suggesting he was being ripped off by fraudsters. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Morrisseau took proactive steps to address these inauthentic works and raise public awareness of the forgeries.

Between 2001 and 2005, Morrisseau filed fifteen affidavits identifying fake works being advertised for auction or sale, which he had never seen or created. His legal team sent letters demanding those auction houses and galleries cease selling these works, threatening civil action or criminal complaints if they persisted.

The artist eventually established the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society, and tasked this group with compiling a comprehensive catalogue raisonné of his work and verifying provenance. However, due to concerns about the prevalence of forged works and the potential legal ramifications with authenticating foundations, the society refrained from providing authentication services. After Morrisseau’s death in 2007, this left individuals in the possession of art attributed to Morrisseau to navigate the complexities of legitimacy and authenticity on their own.

Kevin Hearn – keyboardist of the Canadian band, the Barenaked Ladies – found himself in this situation. In 2005, Hearn acquired what he believed was an original Morrisseau painting entitled Spirit Energy of Mother Earth (1974) for $20,000 from the Maslake-McLeod Gallery in Toronto. When suspicion arose that Hearn’s newly-acquired work was inauthentic, Hearn sued the gallery arguing that Spirit Energy was a forgery and demanding back the purchase price. (An in-depth analysis of the civil lawsuit can be found in Charlotte Dunn’s blog post and her article in the December 2019 issue of Art, Antiquity and Law).

In trying to establish that the painting was a forgery, Hearn and his legal team conducted their own investigation unearthing evidence of a Morrisseau forgery ring in Thunder Bay operated under the leadership of Gary Lamont, a local drug dealer. Despite acknowledging the existence of this forgery ring, the trial judge ultimately found there wasn’t enough evidence to rule on whether Hearn’s particular painting was a forgery or not, thus dismissing the action (paragraphs 93, 155).

Digital Infrared (IR) photographs of Spirit Energy of Mother Earth

It wasn’t until the Ontario Court of Appeal (ONCA)’s judgment in 2019 that Hearn was awarded a favourable ruling. Disagreeing with the lower court’s dismissal, the ONCA focused on false provenance records provided by the gallery concluding that Hearn did not receive what he had paid for – a Norval Morrisseau painting with a “valid provenance statement” (paragraph 44). While the Court of Appeal never made a comment on the authenticity of the artwork itself, Hearn was awarded $50,000 for breach of contract and $10,000 in punitive damages (paragraph 51). Despite Hearn and his team’s diligent work and investigations, they had barely scratched the surface of how extensive and widespread this fraud was.

Commencement of Project Totton

Alerted by the information revealed during the civil trials and recorded in the documentary, There Are No Fakes, law enforcement started to take action. Detective Sergeant Jason Rybak, an officer with the Thunder Bay Police, initiated the investigation Project Totton, which uncovered three forgery rings.

The first was engineered by David Voss, who started forging, selling and consigning fake Morrisseau paintings in 1996 at the age of 24. From the 1990s to early 2000s, the operation grew into an assembly-line in which Voss would draw the outline of the composition in pencil and use letter coding for the various colours to be applied by paid painters. Voss would then apply the distinctive thick black outlines – which Morrisseau was known for – and add Morrisseau’s name in Cree syllabics on the front and black dry-brush an English signature on the back. Voss would then sell or consign these forgeries to third-party distributors or auction houses across Canada, claiming that he had acquired the works from Norval Morrisseau himself.

Thought to be inspired by Voss’ activities, Gary Lamont started his forgery ring in 2002, recruiting young Indigenous artists like Benjamin Morrisseau (Norval’s nephew) to create forged paintings, and setting up an online store to sell works to buyers around the world.

Finally, a third operation in 2008, led by Jeffrey Cowan, originated in Southern Ontario. Cowan commissioned and provided false information for the provenance of the forged works and made up stories about the art’s origins. While Cowan sold many works directly to buyers, he also enlisted James White, an art dealer in Toronto, to act as a major distributor of these forgeries. To legitimise these paintings, both White and Cowan enlisted Paul Bremner to provide the certificates of authenticity and appraisals for hundreds of the forgeries.

In late 2019, the Thunder Bay police finally had enough evidence and conducted raids on the homes of Lamont and Voss, uncovering hundreds of forged works and supplies. In March 2023, the Ontario provincial police announced that they had arrested eight individuals involved in these fraud rings – including Gary Lamont, David Voss, Jeffrey Cowan, Benjamin Morrisseau – filing 40 charges ranging from forgery to defrauding the public.

Officer Jason Rybak

Criminal Prosecution and Sentencing

On 8 December, 2023, Gary Lamont pleaded guilty to forgery and defrauding the public above $5,000 for signing Norval Morrisseau’s name on fraudulent works of art. At the sentencing hearing at the Thunder Bay Courthouse, Justice Warkentin commented: “This is more than just an art fraud. It is the appropriation of the cultural and spiritual identity of one of Canada’s most profound artists.” A joint submission was presented by the Crown and defence counsel calling for a sentence of five years to which Justice Warkentin agreed.

In the recent hearing concerning David Voss, the accused pleaded guilty to counts of forgery and uttering forged documents in relation to the scheme he had operated. This hearing and the statement of agreed facts details how the scheme operated, methods of distribution and attempts by Voss to add credibility to the works he created. David Voss admitted that the Statutory Declaration issued in 2011 by his father Deiter Voss – who attested to having seen Norval Morrisseau sign his paintings on the back in black dry-brush – was false. This declaration had been used to legitimise Voss Ring forgeries in the past, most notably the Wheel of Time (1979) forgery, which was at the centre of a dispute between purchaser Margaret Hatfield and gallery Artworld of Sherway from 2009 to 2013.

Assisting the Crown in distinguishing forgeries from authentic works, the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) recently compared 26 known and securely attributable paintings with 30 suspected forgeries. This included Hearn’s Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, Circle of Four (1978) seized by police in February 2024 from the Senate of Canada and Salmon Life Giving Spawn (1977) seized by police from the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in January 2024. Through digital infrared photography, analysts at the CCI were able to see that the suspected forgeries had underdrawings like those created by Voss with letter codes corresponding to the colour of the overlaying paint.

Impact of this Crime

 These arrests and subsequent prosecutions mark the dismantling of three distinct groups that exploited Norval Morrisseau’s name and artistic legacy for profit. These are not small, victimless crimes. For decades, people proudly displayed these artworks in their homes, believing they were valuable investments. Others bought them to better understand First Nations culture or to learn about Morrisseau’s personal struggles and spirituality. The discovery of these works as fakes has left many feeling ashamed, embarrassed and cheated out of the connections they sought to make. The economic impact has been significant. Countless individuals, families, galleries, cultural institutions and communities have lost thousands of dollars. Furthermore, there has been a taint of diminishing confidence and enthusiasm in purchasing or owning authentic works by Morrisseau or other Indigenous artists.

However, the cultural impact of this crime is perhaps the most profound. As articulated by the Morrisseau estate at Lamont’s sentencing hearing, “This crime perpetrated by non-Indigenous individuals has not only stolen the cultural and artistic identity of Indigenous communities but has also perverted the legends and stories of our peoples. It is a cultural crime that goes beyond financial loss, reaching into the very heart of Indigenous heritage.” For the last 30 years, scholars have analysed the significance of the colours, the overall composition and the meaning behind the figures depicted in these works – believing they are seeing a genuine Morrisseau expression. However, since Morrisseau didn’t actually paint these works, these forgeries have distorted the historical scholarship and our understanding of him as an artist.

The efforts of Officer Rybak, the Thunder Bay Police and Ontario Provincial Police are commendable. However, questions linger as to why action wasn’t taken in the 1990s when Morrisseau started expressing his concerns. This case highlights the critical need for establishing a permanent national art crime team in Canada. As we’ve seen, art crimes not only result in significant financial losses but also undermine cultural heritage and trust in the art market. A dedicated art crime team would ensure timely investigations, provide specialised expertise and foster collaboration across jurisdictions to effectively combat art fraud. By establishing such a unit, Canada could better protect its artistic heritage and ensure that cases of art fraud, illicit trafficking of cultural objects or theft are addressed promptly and with the seriousness they deserve.

While the investigation is still unfolding and works continue to be identified, discussions are ongoing on how to provide restitution to victims. In the Crown’s submission to the court regarding Lamont’s sentencing, prosecutor John Corelli remarked, “The guilty plea today changes this narrative. We cannot redress all the harm this fraud ring has caused, but the guilty plea can help to prevent victimisation. It can turn the tide that has favoured those who claim there are no fakes and begin a frank and open discussion about which ones are fakes, and in doing so, hopefully, it can help to restore Norval Morrisseau’s legacy.

Image Credits:

Norval Morrisseau, Artist and Shaman between Two Worlds, 1980, Joanne Clifford, 2018, CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Digital Infrared (IR) photographs of Spirit Energy of Mother Earth from the Canadian Conservation Institute. R. v. David VOSS Guilty Plea, EXHIBIT 1: Agreed Statement of Facts, page 20.

Still of Officer Jason Rybak, Ontario Provincial Police and Thunder Bay Police Service Media Conference, March 3, 2023.