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A company run by one of Canada’s wealthiest women and the chief executive of a major asset management firm are among the alleged victims of what police have described as the largest case of art fraud in history.
Police in Ontario earlier this month charged eight people with churning out thousands of forged Norval Morrisseau paintings worth tens of millions of dollars — works that end up hanging in galleries and the homes of unsuspecting collectors. According to detectives, the individuals were part of three separate fraud syndicates, the first of which began operating in 1996.
Court records filed in Thunder Bay show Westerkirk Capital Inc. is among those allegedly defrauded. Sole director of Westerkirk Sherry Brydson, whose net worth is estimated by Bloomberg at over US$14 billion. Ms. Brydson is the granddaughter of Roy Thomson and is a shareholder in Woodbridge Companies Ltd., the controlling shareholder of Thomson Reuters Corp.
“Norval Morrisseau is one of Canada’s most important and well-known artists, and we are grateful that both he and his work have been recognized globally,” said Neil Sweeney, Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Westerkirk. He declined to comment further, citing the criminal matter.
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A passion for the arts runs deep in Ms. Brydson’s family. His uncle, Kenneth Thomson, amassed a large collection during his lifetime and in 2002 donated more than 3,000 pieces of Canadian and European art worth approximately $300 million to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Ms. Brydson, through Westerkirk, has been a collector of Morrisseau paintings for years. “I was first introduced to the work of Norval Morisseau at Expo 67 in Montreal, where his mural on the Indians of Canada Pavilion, stunning in its colours, subject matter, style and emotion, captured my attention and touched my heart. Captured,” she wrote in a book featuring Morisseau paintings published by Westerkirk in 2012. He wanted to share the stories and teachings of his people, while inspiring awe and respect for the natural world.
Mauricio, an Ojibwe artist, became one of Canada’s best-known painters during his lifetime. He pioneered a new style of art known as the Woodland School, recognized for its vibrant colors, thick black lines, spiritual themes, and X-ray-like rendering of people and animals. His career began in 1962 after an exhibition at the Toronto Gallery. He died in 2007 due to complications related to Parkinson’s disease, leaving behind a large body of work.
Ms. Brydson staged a show of Mauricio paintings at a spa in downtown Toronto in 2010, and has lent parts of her collection to other institutions such as the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, which has opened a month long exhibition which ended last year.
Court documents give no details about how Westerkirk was allegedly defrauded or came into possession of the forged paintings.
Police have charged David Voss, 51, with defrauding Westerkirk of more than $5,000, according to court documents. (A message left on a phone number for Mr. Voss was not returned.) He is one of eight individuals accused of forgery following a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police and the Thunder Bay Police Service. , A total of forty have been charged, and police estimate that the fraud rings could have produced as many as 6,000 counterfeits. The RCMP conducted an investigation in the 2000s, but no charges were laid.
Mr. Voss was a prodigious dealer of Morisseau’s work, and sold many of the paintings at an auction house in Port Hope, Ont. Randy Potter, Auctioneer, Maclean’s magazine recalled Mr. Voss pulled into the parking lot one day in 2018 with a trunk full of Morrisseau paintings. Mr. Potter had never heard of Norval Morrisseau at the time and did not ask many questions about where the artifacts had come from. “I guess I never really cared,” he said. He estimated that he sold about 2,000 paintings supplied by Mr. Voss by the time the auction house closed in 2009. Mr Potter died in 2018.
The name of a painting allegedly sold by Mr Voss was Spirit Energy of Mother Earth, which was later purchased by Barenaked Ladies member Kevin Hearn from a gallery in Toronto in 2005. A few years after the sale, Mr. Hearn became convinced that the painting was a forgery and sued the gallery owner. The case went to trial in 2017, and brought to light a wealth of evidence regarding an alleged counterfeiting operation in Thunder Bay run by Gary Lamont.
An indigenous painter submitted an affidavit saying that Mr. Lamont commissioned art work from him, but told him not to sign any of the work. He later learned that someone else had signed Norval Morisseau’s name on the canvas before it was sold. Another indigenous man testified that he worked for Mr. Lamont and saw Benjamin Mauriseau, nephew of the famous artist, who paints in the Woodland style and then signs the name Norval Mauriseau. Mr. Voss, according to witness testimony, was a customer.
Police have charged Mr Lamont with multiple counts of fraud, while Benjamin Morrisseau faces charges of forgery and participation in a criminal organisation. In a 2019 documentary about counterfeiting, no fakeMr. Morrisseau told the filmmakers that he would never create his uncle’s work, saying it would be “a bad omen on my soul”.
Mr Hearn is among those allegedly defrauded by Mr Voss, according to court documents. painting at the center of his suit, Spirit Energy of Mother Earthwas screened at a police news conference in March announcing the charges.
Mr Hearn said, “I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has stood up for the truth over the years and tried to do the right thing.” “There are a lot of people who never got closure from it.”
Meanwhile, Brent Merrill on Mr. Lamont, MetCap Living Inc. The chairman and chief executive officer of , a large residential property manager based in Toronto that oversees about 350 apartment buildings in Canada, is accused of defrauding. He is also the owner of a Toronto art gallery called Gallery 260, which has featured Morrisseau paintings over the years. Mr. Merrill did not respond to interview requests.
The eight accused are due to appear in court later this month in Thunder Bay and Bradford, Ontario.
Victims of alleged Morrisseau art fraud include Westerkirk Capital billionaire Sherry Brydson
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