March 9 (UPI) — Canadian police have arrested eight people on allegations they orchestrated a scheme to forge more than a thousand works purported to be made by renowned artist Norval Morrisseau.
Morrisseau, who died in 2007, was a prolific Indigenous artist from Canada’s Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation. Ontario Provincial Police and the Thunder Bay Police Service have been investigating allegations that fraudulent art was being created in his name since 2020.
Kari Dart with Ontario Provincial Police said at a news conference Monday that 38 charges have since been levied against the eight suspects, and that more than 1,000 works purported to be authentic Morrisseau pieces have been seized.
“The total number produced and sold is unknown,” Dart said, before praising Morrisseau as “the first Indigenous artist to break into the mainstream art world in Canada.”
Dart added that Morrisseau’s contributions to indigenous art and culture “are incomparable” and asserted that his success as an artist made him an “easy target for fraud.”
Morrisseau’s nephew Benjamin Paul Morrisseau, 53, was among those arrested and has been charged with forgery and participating in a criminal organization.
Benjamin Morrisseau was called a “fantastic painter” in his own right by Det. Staff Sgt. Jason Rybak with the Thunder Bay Police Service in an interview with The Toronto Star. His motivations for allegedly participating in the art fraud scheme were not known.
The others were identified by police as David John Voss, Diane Marie Champagne, Gary Bruce Lamont, Linda Joy Tkachyk, Jeffrey Gordon Cowan and James White.
Morrisseau himself was concerned about fakes and forgeries before his death, the Ottawa Citizen reported before his death.
A committee of experts was formed in 2005 to help the artist catalog his existing body of artwork — believed to include more than 10,000 pieces — in order to help identify fakes.
“His artwork is found in galleries across this country and, for that matter, worldwide,” Thunder Bay Police Chief Dan Taddeo said in the news conference.
Taddeo added that Morrisseau’s legacy must remain that he “challenged mainstream views of Indigenous peoples in his time” and that his legacy “cannot be attached to this criminal act.”
Morrisseau, who survived Canada’s residential school system, achieved international success after the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock helped popularize his work by showing it at his gallery in Toronto in 1962.
Pollock once wrote: “I knew that Morrisseau was an artist with vision and I decided then and there that I would show them in Toronto.”