Dispute over Morrisseau painting heads to court
Nov 19, 2012
Kevin Hearn, the keyboardist for the Barenaked Ladies, is suing a fine-art gallery in Toronto for selling him a Norval Morrisseau painting he believes was a “fake or forgery,” according to documents filed in a Toronto court.
Hearn, who is an artist and collector as well as a member of the Canadian pop band, bought the colourful painting entitled “Spirit Energy of Mother Earth” in 2005 from the Maslak McLeod Gallery.
Norval Morrisseau painted thousands of paintings in his lifetime.
In a statement of claim, Hearn describes himself as a “novice collector” who believed assurances from gallery operator Joseph Bertram McLeod that the painting was by Morrisseau, Canada’s most famous aboriginal artist.
None of the allegations contained in the statement of claim have been proven in court. No statement of defence has yet been filed.
The lawyer representing McLeod, Brian Shiller, said Spirit Energy of Mother Earth is a genuine Morrisseau, and his client intends to file a detailed defence. “Mr. McLeod is not in the business of selling fake works of art and has never done so,” Shiller said in a statement.
McLeod would “welcome the opportunity to meet with Mr. Hearn and discuss this unfortunate situation with him and has no desire to engage in litigation,” the statement said.
Deep disagreements between art gallery owners, collectors, art auctions and Morrisseau family members and friends have spilled into the courts before.
The legacy of Canada’s most famous aboriginal artist includes thousands of brilliant paintings and a lot of controversy about which ones are authentic.
Hearn said he began to question the provenance of his painting in 2010, when he was a “celebrity guest curator” of a show at the Art Gallery of Ontario that included Spirit Energy of Mother Earth and other pieces from his private collection. According to the statement of claim, about a week after the show opened, the gallery removed Spirit Energy from the exhibit after The AGO’s head curator and “numerous individuals” “suggested that the painting was most likely a fake.”
Two other paintings allegedly by Norval Morrisseau provided by the Maslak McLeod Gallery were also removed from the exhibition, the court documents say.
A representative of the AGO said the two paintings from Maslak McLeod were removed as a “precaution” when “questions were raised” about their authenticity. “We cannot comment on whether an investigation occurred as the paintings are not from our collection,” said spokeswoman Andrea-Jo Wilson.
McLeod, through his lawyer, said the AGO did not tell him the two paintings were fakes.
The incident was humiliating and embarrassing for Hearn, the court filing says. Hearn is seeking punitive damages of $50,0000 as well as the $20,000 purchase price of the painting and $25,000 to cover his investment return on the painting. If the painting was a genuine Morrisseau, it would be worth about $45,000 today, the court documents said.
McLeod developed an interest in native art after working as a young man in northern Ontario, when he met Morrisseau briefly and began buying his paintings, according to testimony McLeod has given in an unrelated trial. He’s been involved in the exhibition and sale of native art for decades.
“For twenty years, Maslak McLeod (gallery) has sold, researched, developed and aided hundreds of Canadian Native Artists,” said the emailed statement from McLeod’s lawyer to the Citizen. “There has never been an issue raised regarding their knowledge, veracity or legal practices that have been challenged in a court of law.”
It’s always difficult to establish the provenance of paintings not obtained directly from Morrisseau, Shiller said in a telephone interview.
Morrisseau, born in northern Ontario, is best known for his vibrantly coloured paintings depicting aboriginal legends and spirits. He produced an estimated 10,000 paintings in his lifetime. Morrisseau was brilliant and charismatic but erratic, struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. He sold paintings in tony Toronto galleries, and traded them for booze when he lived on the streets of Vancouver. Morrisseau sometimes exchanged paintings informally for groceries or paint, said Ruth Phillips, a prominent art historian who teaches at Carleton University. As the value of Morrisseau’s paintings has risen over the years, so have the controversies, played out in various lawsuits and online. There is disagreement on everything from the prevalence of fake Morrisseaus to whether the man known as the Picasso of the North was always mentally competent to make declarations about the authenticity of his own paintings.
In the statament of claim, Hearn said that he admired Morrisseau’s art and had a long-standing desire to own an original. In 2005, he walked into the Maslak McLeod gallery and was shown several pieces.
The statement of claim says that McLeod assured Hearn that “Spirit Energy of Mother Earth,” was authentic, and that his gallery was the “best and safest place” to buy a work by Morrisseau. Hearn was also advised, the documents say, that Morrisseau was very ill and would probably die shortly, which would increase the value of the painting.
Hearn said he was not informed that the type of painting he bought was “of a species of Morrisseau painting that is the subject of significant and persistent disagreement regarding authenticity,” said court documents.
Allegations have been made by a “very small group of people” that large numbers of Morrisseau paintings sold at auctions in the late’90s and early 2000s were fake, said Shiller in his statement, an idea that is contested by “numerous gallery owners across Canada who sell works of art by Mr. Morrisseau, including Mr. McLeod.”
“Allegations of fake Morrisseau paintings are nothing new.” he writes.”But these allegations have never been substantiated and are false.” He calls allegations that there are between 800 and 1,200 fake Morrisseau painting in circulation “preposterous.”
Others, including Donald Robinson, the Toronto art dealer whose gallery represented Morrisseau for about 16 years, disagree. Robinson testified in another court case that there are many fraudulent paintings in circulation.
As this lawsuit illustrates, there is also disagreement about who represented Morrisseau while he was alive.
Hearn’s lawsuit says that McLeod’s gallery had been “specifically prohibited by Morrisseau himself from acting as authenticators of his work on the basis that the defendants had … allegedly been selling and authenticating large quantities of fake and/or forged Morrisseau paintings as part of a fraud scheme.”
McLeod agrees that he received communications from “people who purported to be acting as agents to Mr. Morrisseau” when the artist was still alive, said Shiller’s statement. But there are “issues concerning the bona fides” of those people that will probably come out in court, the statement said.
Art historian Phillips said that while she had no comment on the painting at the centre of this lawsuit, in general anyone considering buying a Morrisseau artwork should be cautious. “There’s just no question that there are a lot of fakes in circulation. People should be very careful about buying his work.”
Phillips is part of a Heritage Society of experts authorized by Morrisseau in 2005 to produce a scholarly catalogue of authentic works. Progress has been slow and was recently stymied by a legal wrangle over the artist’s estate.
Morrisseau had strained relationships with his seven children. But in the late 1980s he formed a close bond with Gabor Vadas, a man he met on the streets of Vancouver, that lasted for nearly 20 years. Vadas and his wife cared for Morrisseau after he suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
When Morrisseau died in 2007, he left his estate to Vadas, but Morrisseau’s children challenged the will in the B.C. Supreme Court. A settlement was reached last winter that allowed for Vadas and the children to share the artist’s estate.
Copied from the Ottawa Citizen (link no longer available) – reprinted in the public interest.
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