In the latest installment — and perhaps the most high-profile of these allegations — a statement of defense was filed January 31, on behalf of Joseph McLeod, a co-founder of Toronto’s Maslak McLeod Gallery. He is responding to a lawsuit issued by a member of the Canadian pop band Barenaked Ladies, keyboardist Kevin Hearn, that alleges the gallery sold him a painting, “Spirit Energy of Mother Earth” (1974), knowing “at all material times” that it was a forgery. Hearn seeks over $90,000 in damages, after paying $20,000 for the painting in 2005. A court ruling is pending.
ARTINFO Canada spoke with McLeod’s defense lawyer, Brian Shiller, who summarizes a complex history regarding the contested authenticity of Morrisseau’s production, one stemming from several complicating factors. The first of these is Morrisseau’s late-career proliferation of paintings that he sold for cheap sums or bartered goods on the streets of Thunder Bay, supporting a drug and alcohol dependency. The second is Morrisseau’s own stated recognition that forgeries exist, when presented with color photocopies of contested works, near the end of his life, in 2001. Shiller says, “There are two schools on this. The school that supports his legacy doesn’t deny that there may be forgeries out there; but it isn’t a chronic problem. The other, which is a small group, takes the view that a number of paintings that came out of Northern Ontario, around Thunder Bay, ended up in an auction over a four-year period — somewhere in the vicinity of 800 paintings came to auction and mostly sold — and are mass-produced fakes.” Shiller goes into greater detail on this pivotal period of auctions. “People came from across the country to see and bid on these, including notable experts,” he says. “In May of 2001, a National Post article came out and started this allegation that there were many fake Morrisseau paintings on the market. That culminated in one of these experts, Donald Robinson, testifying in the Hatfield case that all the paintings in the auctions, including the 28 that he’d purchased, were fakes. Included in those is Kevin Hearn’s painting,” Shiller explains.
“There is no evidence that I have seen to substantiate the allegation,” he continues. “To the contrary, there are many expert reports done by forensic examiners that have looked at the signatures on the back of the canvases and concluded that it’s highly probable that those paintings were signed by Morrisseau. To date, no other evidence has come forward to suggest otherwise.”
When asked what would prompt a false allegation against Morrisseau’s legitimacy, Shiller deduces that the painter’s market value deteriorated when the auctions were over-run with his work. “It was alleged in one of the cases that certain individuals wanted to discount the Potter [Auctions’s] paintings because they were flooding the market – there were so many of them that came in a short time and it was making what other people owned less valuable. They had a financial incentive to say they were fake when they weren’t,” Shiller says. “The trial judge chose not to deal with that issue.”
In a case that’s still revealing new angles, Shiller makes a further note recommending his client’s innocence, remarking on the gallerist’s deep understanding of Morrisseau’s work and unique trace. “McLeod had been a student of Morrisseau since the late 1950s, so he’s very well-versed in Morrisseau’s paintings. I am not aware of an expert with more extensive experience and knowledge of his work,” says Shiller.
Hearn’s lawsuit was launched in the summer of 2012, filed in October 2013, and awaits a court ruling.
(Photo: “Spirit Energy of Mother Earth,” © 1974 Norval Morrisseau; Courtesy the Norval Morrisseau Blog)
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"Barenaked Ladies Keyboardist Sues Dealer for Allegedly Selling Fake Norval Morrisseau"