Inside the Biggest Art Fraud in History

Norval Morrisseau was certain. “I did not paint the attached 23 acrylics on canvas,” he wrote in a typed letter in 2001 to his Toronto gallery representative, who had sent him color photocopies of works that had recently sold at an unrelated auction.

Morrisseau, then in his late 60s and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was the most important artist in the modern history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples—the “Picasso of the North.” He had single-handedly invented the Woodlands school of art, which fused European and Indigenous traditions to create striking, vibrant images featuring thick black lines and colorful interiors of humans, animals and plants, as though they had been X-rayed and their insides were visible and filled with unusual patterns and shapes. He was one of the first Indigenous painters to garner national attention and the first to have a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. “Few exhibits in Canadian art history have touched off a greater immediate stir,” swooned the Canadian edition of Time magazine after Morrisseau’s sold-out 1962 debut exhibition in Toronto.

By 2001, Morrisseau paintings routinely fetched thousands of dollars on the market. The works he now denied having painted were no exception. The auctioneer had advertised them as being from Morrisseau’s hand and claimed to a reporter writing about the dispute that, though he had obtained the paintings from an obscure seller, he had no reason to doubt their authenticity—he had already sold 800 of them without a single buyer’s complaint.

Morrisseau, though justifiably incensed, wasn’t surprised that imitations of his work were being sold as authentic on the open market. As early as 1991, the Toronto Star reported the artist was complaining about being “ripped off” by fraudsters. But for years Canadian law enforcement did little to investigate the artist’s claims that forgers were imitating his work. Eventually, in the face of this inaction, Morrisseau’s lawyers advised him to notify galleries and auctioneers that they were selling fakes and warn them that they could be the subject of a court injunction, civil action or criminal complaint. Still the sales went on.

It wasn’t until this past year, more than 15 years after the artist died from complications related to Parkinson’s, that an unlikely consortium of investigators, led by a homicide cop from the small city of Thunder Bay, Ontario, finally exposed the scheme to defraud Morrisseau. Not even the artist himself could have imagined the scale of the fraud, which in both the number of forged paintings and the profits made from their sale was likely the biggest art fraud in history—not in Canada or North America but anywhere in the world.

Morrisseau was born in the early 1930s. Consistent with Anishinaabe traditions, he was raised by his maternal grandparents on a reserve near Thunder Bay belonging to the Anishinaabe. Reserves were (and largely remain) small, poor, unproductive lands where the Canadian government had forced Indigenous people to live. Morrisseau’s grandmother was Catholic, and his grandfather, a shaman, taught him his people’s spiritual traditions. Fusing white and Indigenous cultures, rather than segregating them, would define Morrisseau’s life and art.

When Morrisseau was 6, Canadian officials abducted him and sent him to a residential school. These infamous boarding schools were established by the federal government in the late 19th century. As at their counterparts in the United States, Indigenous students were stripped of their language, culture, community and family ties and were forcibly assimilated into the dominant white, Christian culture. In both countries students also frequently endured physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and Morrisseau later said that he’d endured sexual assault at school—among the experiences that caused lasting psychological and emotional damage, leaving him vulnerable to addictions to alcohol and drugs.

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