Canadian Police Make Arrests in ‘Biggest Art Fraud in World History’

Arrests have been made in $100 million art forgery scheme involving famed Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau.

Black and white image of Norval Morrisseau sitting at a desk, painting canvas laid out in front of him
Norval Morrisseau pictured in 1977. (Graham Bezant/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Eight individuals were arrested for their alleged involvement in a decades-long Canadian fraud ring involving the production of forged works attributed to Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau. The number of forged artworks makes this one of the biggest cases of art counterfeiting ever discovered.

Morrisseau, who died in 2007 and was also known as Copper Thunderbird, was from the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Referred to as the “Picasso of the North,” he founded a style known as the Woodlands School of Art and was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1978, according to the artist’s official website.

The arrested individuals, aged 47 to 81, are facing charges ranging from forgery, defrauding the public and fraud of over $5,000, according to a March 3 report from the Ontario Provincial Police, which began investigating the forgeries in 2020 alongside the Thunder Bay Police Service.

Abstract painting of a bird pictured behind a blue background, placard placed next to it.
One of the suspected Morrisseau forgeries. Courtesy of the OPP.

The investigation spanned Canada and the U.S. and has since led to the seizure of more than 1,000 fraudulent works, some of which sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The arrests reflect the dismantling of three distinct forgery groups, which began in 1996, 2002 and 2008 respectively, said police officials during an Ontario police news conference.

Benjamin Paul Morrisseau, the nephew of the late artist and one of the eight suspects, was allegedly recruited in 2002 to help create the fraudulent works. The arrested individuals could not be reached for comment.

$100 million worth of forgeries

Between 4,000 and 6,500 forged Morrisseau works were estimated to be created by the ring, with an average low value of around $15,000 for each work, said Detective Sergeant Jason Rybak of the Thunder Bay police in a statement to TBnewswatch.  “If you do the math, you’re up around $100 million. We believe this is the biggest art fraud in world history,” said Ryback.

The investigation was initially inspired by the 2019 documentary There Are No Fakes, which focused on allegations of forged Morrisseau works, said Ryback at the Ontario Police news conference.

The documentary explored fraud allegations relating to a Morrisseau work purchased by Kevin Hearn, a member of Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies. Hearn was later awarded $60,000 in a lawsuit against the gallery which sold him the painting.

Canadian Police Make Arrests in ‘Biggest Art Fraud in World History’