The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) on March 3 revealed that they had arrested eight individuals in connection with “the biggest art fraud in world history.” Those detained are alleged to have been involved in the forgery and sale of works of art attributed to noted Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, known as “the Picasso of the North.” The fraud scheme is said to have spanned decades and aroused suspicion even before the artist’s 2007 death.
The arrests followed a two-and-a-half-year investigation conducted by the OPP with the assistance of the Thunder Bay Police Service. Those nabbed in the March 1 sting—including a nephew of the painter—belonged to three separate forgery groups, which were inaugurated in 1996, 2002, and 2008, respectively. Also netted during the operation were more than one thousand forged artworks in the Woodlands School of Art style that Morrisseau, a member of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, established. Some of these works were sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
Police believe the fraudsters were involved in the creation and circulation of between 4,000 and 6,500 forged Morisseau works, with an estimated low total value of $100 milllion. Many of the paintings are said to have been created by children forced into sweatshop labor, and still others by young Indigenous artists of whom the accused took advantage.
The investigation was spurred into motion by a 2019 documentary by Canadian filmmaker Jamie Kastner titled There Are No Fakes. The film investigated allegations of fraud connected to a Morrisseau painting bought by Kevin Hearn, a member of Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies, who eventually won a suit against the gallery that sold him the work.
Morrisseau, who signed his canvases “Copper Thunderbird,” in his native language, centered Indigenous cosmology in his work, which often featured erotic themes, or evoked cultural or political tensions between Native Canadians and settlers. He was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1978.