Art lovers beware: Norval Morrisseau fakes are still on the market, says lawyer
Margaret Hatfield bought a painting called Wheel of Life, allegedly by artist Norval Morrisseau, at a Toronto art gallery.
Photograph by: Brent Foster , Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — Art-lovers thinking of buying a work by Norval Morrisseau should still be cautious, says a Toronto lawyer who represented a woman who lost a court battle to prove a painting she bought was fake.
Retired Sarnia school teacher Margaret Hatfield recently lost a civil court case that alleged a painting by the late Ojibwa artists that she bought from a Toronto art gallery was a fraud. A Toronto small-claims court ruled that her painting, called Wheel of Life, was “on the balance of probabilities” a genuine work of art by Morrisseau.
The ruling only applies to that one painting, says Hatfield’s lawyer, Jonathan Sommer.
“My opinion, and that of my client, based upon what I have seen, is that there is a huge problem with the existence of fakes, and people should be particularly cautious when purchasing the work of Norval Morrisseau, and examine each painting on a case-by-case basis, and not rely unduly on a single statement about a single painting made by a single small-claims courts judge.”
Hatfield still believes the painting is a fake, but may not be able to continue her legal fight for financial reasons, Sommer said. She has 30 days to file an appeal.
Allegations of fraud have clouded the Morrisseau art market for years. Morrisseau was prolific, producing an estimated 10,000 works in his lifetime. But his alcoholism, sometimes transient lifestyle and lack of record-keeping mean it’s not always easy to sort out real paintings from fakes.
The small-claims court judgment, dated March 25, appears to be the first court ruling on the authenticity of a painting by Morrisseau.
Sommer says that in his opinion, the judgment contains errors of fact and law. For example, the judge noted that Morrisseau suffered from Alzheimer’s, he said. Morrisseau in his later years suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
The distinction may be important, because Morrisseau’s mental state around the time Hatfield bought her painting was a key issue in the trial.
Hatfield bought her painting for $10,350 from Artworld of Sherway gallery in 2005. She filed the civil suit after she discovered that Morrisseau himself had signed an affidavit in 2004 declaring that Wheel of Life was fraudulent.
There was conflicting testimony about Morrisseau’s mental state. The court heard that Morrisseau had memory problems, was inconsistent in his identification of which paintings were fake, and may even have deliberately signed paintings he knew were not his simply to please others. But it also heard that the lawyer who signed Morrisseau’s 2004 affidavit, and Morrisseau’s doctor, believed he was of sound mind.
Artworld of Sherway was sent the affidavit saying Wheel of Life was fake, but gallery director Donna Child testified she discounted it because she believed that Morrisseau was not of sound mind when it was signed, and was being controlled by his manager and his Toronto art dealer.
For the last two decades of his life, Morrisseau was cared for by Gabor Vadas, the man he considered his adopted son. Vadas, with his wife Michele, handled Morrisseau’s business affairs.
(In his ruling, the small-claims court judge, at times, refers to “Mr. Michel Vardas” as well as “Mrs. Dave and Michelle Vadas.”)
The Hatfield trial was an unusually long and complicated case. The process lasted four years, and there were five days of testimony. The art gallery was represented by Brian Shiller, who works at one of the top law firms in Toronto.
Millions of dollars are at stake. Morrisseau is one of the most popular artists in Canadian history, and his work fetches thousands of dollars.
The court ruling also addressed a key controversy that has hung over up to 2,000 paintings allegedly by Morrisseau that were sold at auctions in southern Ontario in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many, like Wheel of Life, ended up being resold at art galleries.
Most of them were signed “Norval Morrisseau” on the back with heavy black paint in a “dry brush” technique that makes the signature look old and faded. That signature was a key issue in the case.
Don Robinson, a Toronto art gallery owner who was Morrisseau’s principal agent for 19 years, testified that the artist never signed the back of his paintings in that way. All of the paintings sold at the auctions were fake, Robinson testified. He also suggested that Morrisseau’s own estranged family was involved in the production of fraudulent paintings.
The court rejected Robinson’s expert report, noting that his “business interests conflicted with his professional opinion,” since he still sells Morrisseau paintings, and also that he had no formal training as a handwriting expert.
Instead, the court accepted the evidence of Morrisseau’s brother Wilfred, who testified that he advised Norval to sign his paintings on the back, and personally saw the artist sign at least a thousand of them in black paint. Wilfred’s testimony was “convincing and credible,” said the judgment. It also accepted the opinion of a handwriting expert and of another Toronto gallery owner, Joseph McLeod, who had provided a certificate saying Wheel of Life was authentic.
“The Court finds that there is overwhelming evidence that Norval Morrisseau signed paintings in black brush paint,” said the judgment.
The judge also ruled, in an apparent error, that “the court finds as a fact that the painted black dry brush signature on the back of the painting Wheel of Life is that of Wilfred Morrisseau.”
Shiller believes the ruling will make it easier for galleries across Canada to sell similar paintings that came from the southern Ontario auctions, confident they are genuine.
The judgment was a relief for Child, Artworld of Sherway’s director. The court ruled that Artworld of Sherway “did not misrepresent the authenticity of the painting.”
“I’m overjoyed,” said Child in a phone interview. “It’s the right decision … in the court’s eyes, my thoughts and beliefs about this painting were also theirs. I had no doubt that it was genuine.”
She said the decision might help improve the Morrisseau art market. “I’m hoping it will start to stabilize things. He is a great Canadian painter, and the seed of doubt that has been planted in the minds of collectors has certainly hurt business for not only Norval Morrisseau’s work but for the Woodland school, period. Hopefully this will start to spring the market back to where it should be. He’s a great Canadian painter, and needs to be recognized, not only in Canada, but internationally as well.”
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