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Barenaked Ladies musician who claims he was sold fake Morrisseau painting loses lawsuit

Barenaked Ladies musician who claims he was sold fake Morrisseau painting loses lawsuit
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Claims of an art-fraud ring selling fakes attributed to legendary Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau have long tarnished his legacy and deflated the value of his work, and the art world was looking to an Ontario court case to finally settle things.

But in a ruling issued Thursday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan declared he is unable to determine whether the painting Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, bought in 2005 by Barenaked Ladies musician Kevin Hearn, is a true Morrisseau.

Morgan concludes “while Spirit Energy of Mother Earth may indeed be a fraudulent Morrisseau, there is an equal chance it is a real Morrisseau. … As a matter of law, what is important is that a tie goes to the Defendant.”

That means Hearn loses his six-year-old lawsuit against the Toronto gallery where he bought the painting, but it also means a cloud remains over the work of the man called “the Picasso of the North.”

Hearn’s lawyer Jonathan Sommer described the ruling as “shocking and deeply upsetting” to his client, who “doesn’t believe for a second that the painting is authentic.”

The judge’s opinion that the disputed painting is “an interesting and beautiful one, if I may say so,” provided no consolation.

I cannot impugn the authenticity of Spirit Energy Of Mother Earth simply because it was produced in a ‘high crime area,’ as it were

Hearn had called as a witness University of Regina art history professor Carmen Robertson, who testified that the painting displays “a pleasing simulation of Morrisseau’s artistic vocabulary” but differed too much from his other works of that era to be genuine.

But the judge was not persuaded, and although he accepted the existence of a Thunder Bay, Ont., fraud ring churning out fake Morrisseaus, he said there was no persuasive evidence that Spirit Energy of Mother Earth was their doing.

Allen Fleishman, the founder of an online auction house and business manager for artist Christian Morrisseau, one of Morrisseau’s children, was hopeful that even though the ruling was inconclusive, it would put an end to the legal squabbles over paintings by the prolific elder Morrisseau, who died in 2007.

“It’s great news for Norval, for his family and for his legacy,” Fleishman said. “Hopefully, the market will have no more doubt about what they are buying.”

But the decision does not dispel doubts completely. The court heard testimony that a drug dealer named Gary Lamont ran an operation producing fake Morrisseau canvases painted by one of Morrisseau’s nephews.

In 2005, he bought Spirit Energy of Mother Earth from Toronto’s Maslak-McLeod Gallery. The painting hung proudly on his wall for five years until he was invited to exhibit it at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2010, and Ritchie Sinclair, a painter who apprenticed under Morrisseau, complained to the gallery that it was a fake. Supplied

One witness said the nephew spent hours mastering Morrisseau’s Cree syllabic signature, which the artist used on the front of paintings, and his English signature on the back. Another witness testified he flew regularly to Calgary to sell the fakes.

“I do not doubt the existence of a Thunder Bay-area fraud ring and the circulation of fraudulent paintings produced there,” Morgan writes. “However I cannot impugn the authenticity of Spirit Energy Of Mother Earth simply because it was produced in a ‘high crime area,’ as it were.”

Morrisseau, born on the Sand Point Reserve near Beardmore, Ont., is considered the father of the Woodland School of art, called “X-ray art” because it depicts people and animals in a skeleton-like manner using thick black lines and vivid colours.

Also known by his spirit name, Copper Thunderbird, Morrisseau was named to the Order of Canada in 1978. As his stature grew, Morrisseau battled alcoholism and, in the 1980s, lived for a time on the streets of Vancouver.

Hearn, who declined an interview request, first became interested in Morrisseau after admiring one of his works on the cover of Bruce Cockburn’s album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. In 2005, he bought Spirit Energy of Mother Earth from Toronto’s Maslak-McLeod Gallery.

The painting hung proudly on his wall for five years until he was invited to exhibit it at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2010, and Ritchie Sinclair, a painter who apprenticed under Morrisseau, complained to the gallery that it was a fake. The gallery immediately took down the painting.

The judge seriously questions the credibility of Sinclair, who was not called to testify, and says “the AGO may well have acted in excessive haste.” But in Hearn’s mind the damage was done. He testified he was “devastated and greatly embarrassed by this turn of events,” the judge writes.

Sommer said that for Hearn, the long legal battle was not about recouping a lost investment but about exposing what he considers “the horrible criminality” of fraudsters profiting off Morrisseau’s legacy.

The judge agreed that Hearn was sincere and motivated by a “dedication to the truth,” but he could not resist a little punning at the expense of the musician and his band’s biggest hit. Owning a Morrisseau had become “a barenaked ambition,” Morgan writes at one point. “If he had a million dollars (or at least tens of thousands), he would buy a Norval Morrisseau.”

Sommer said Hearn found the judge’s joke “upsetting.” He is considering whether to appeal the ruling.

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