The story of Norval Morrisseau’s contested art is as riveting as it is complicated in There Are No Fakes

The story of Norval Morrisseau’s contested art is as riveting as it is complicated in There Are No Fakes
Make sure you’re well rested and on your toes before going to see the newest documentary from Jamie Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution, The Skyjacker’s Tale). It’s a complicated but fascinating story that touches on art forgery, appropriation of voice, cultural genocide and even murder.

To begin, you need to know about Norval Morrisseau, a.k.a. Copper Thunderbird, a First Nations artist and founder of the Woodlands School of painting. He died in 2007, aged 76.

You’ll also meet Kevin Hearn of The Barenaked Ladies, who in 2005 paid $20,000 – “not a huge deal for me,” he admits – for Morrisseau’s Spirit Energy of Mother Earth. When he loaned it to the Art Gallery of Ontario for a show, a curator there told him it was a fake.

From here, Kastner leads us down a rabbit hole of art experts, lawyers, collectors and dealers, some of them shady, others downright dreadful. One interview subject says on camera that if he had six months to live he’d shoot one of his legal rivals; another runs a website that smears his enemies and is an affront to both civility and the eye. (Honestly; red text on a mustard-yellow background? What was he thinking?)

The stakes are high. An authentic Morrisseau can sell for $10,000 or more, but if there are thousands of forgeries as some allege, that could amount to tens of millions in contested payments.

Kastner takes his time exploring the story from the perspective of Yorkville galleries and provincial courts, before suddenly turning his camera on Thunder Bay. Here we meet Dallas Thompson, who describes a forgery ring in detail, and says he saw Benjamin Morrisseau (Norval’s nephew) signing his uncle’s name to his own similarly styled paintings, which were they driven to Calgary and sold.

It’s nice to hear from some First Nations witnesses and those who were close to Morrisseau, though it doesn’t un-muddy the waters much. We’re left with a tangled tale and the unsettling suggestion that some people have been profiting from the artist’s fame; the only questions seem to be who knew, and when. There are suggestions that Morrisseau himself may have been complicit at some point.

Collector Joe Otavnik isn’t having it; one of his interview comments became the film’s title, There Are No Fakes. And dealer Jim White agrees. “I have never seen a fake,” he tells the camera. But he also owns 150 Morrisseau paintings that he says are worth $2.5 million. If he ever did see a fake, their worth would vanish in the blink of an eye.

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