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Forgery, Drugs, Money and Art: Documentary Dives into Legacy of Norval Morrisseau

A fascinating look at a Canadian controversy, and a reminder of the art world’s shaky foundations.

Dorothy Woodend 14 Jun

Dorothy Woodend is The Tyee’s culture editor. Reach her here.

High culture may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Thunder Bay.

But Jamie Kastner’s new documentary There Are No Fakes, opening at the Vancity Theatre today, reveals the northern Ontario city is something of an art hub — just not in the way you might imagine.

The film is a deep dive down a rabbit hole of art forgery, biker gangs, sexual abuse, drugs, murder and the most bizarre cast of characters outside of an especially horrific episode of Trailer Park Boys.

The story started innocently enough when Kevin Hearn, keyboard player for the Barenaked Ladies, bought a painting by the Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau from the Maslak McLeod Gallery in Toronto for $20,000.

A few years later Hearn loaned the work to the Art Gallery of Ontario. When the painting was declared a fake and removed from the show, he sued the Maslak McLeod Gallery.

Kastner’s documentary reveals the bigger, stranger and far more troubling tale of the perverse relationship between beautiful art and dirty money that began to emerge. Tying these two very different worlds together is the legacy of one of Canada’s truly great artists, Norval Morrisseau, who died in 2007.

There are enough plot twists jammed into this neo-Darwinian, Dickensian tale to supply a couple films or novels. As Kastner’s film moves from the tony galleries of Toronto to a remote cabin north of Thunder Bay, a cavalcade of characters emerge, all maintaining they had Morrisseau’s best interests at heart.

Some could be straight from Canadian central casting, including a pleasant hippy dude who was close to Morrisseau, as well as a real-life Bill Sikes figure. Chain-smoking auctioneers, wealthy collectors and vampiric gallery owners make for some horrific viewing as they wage vicious online campaigns against anyone who questions the authenticity of Morrisseau’s work. Those questions were hardly surprising. Morrisseau was wildly prolific, and during periods of heavy alcohol use would regularly trade artwork for a few dollars or give pieces away.*

As Hearn’s lawsuit moved forward, one faction maintained that there is no such thing as a fake Morrisseau, while the other side pointedly asked who was really behind the flood of sketchy work flooding the market. (Some 3,000 paintings worth $30 million, according to some estimates.)

The intersections of money, art and crime run deep. And despite the lurid strokes of profit and exploitation on display in There Are No Fakes, the story is pretty small potatoes in comparison to things happening in the international art world.

Whether it’s the Pope, a robber baron or a Vancouver real estate developer, art has long been a handy way of using great whacks of wealth to buy a better public image. As the old saying goes, behind every great fortune is a great crime, and the purifying waters of art can help clean up a messy past.

Although the massive profits being plowed into the art world have garnered greater attention of late, they show little sign of slowing down. If the recent sale of Jeff Koons' silly silver rabbit for $91 million is any indication, they’re continuing to leap upwards.

Corporations also seek to clean up their image through major donations. The Sackler family, who made their fortunes in pharmaceuticals, has long been a major donor to art galleries, museums and other institutions. They turned their profits into buildings and gallery wings — their wealth and power permanently inscribed in marble and stone.

But those donations have become much more closely scrutinized since the family fortunes soared upward based on their role in marketing OxyContin — and in fuelling the opioid crisis, according to a fleet of lawsuits. Now institutions are rethinking gifts from the family amid charges the donations are what a Guardian article called “reputation laundering.”

Major institutions like the Tate in London and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art were recently shamed into refusing money from the Sacklers by artists and activists, including photographer Nan Goldin. That Goldin, no stranger to the agonies of OxyContin addiction, led the fight against the Sackler family has a certain poetic justice, but it’s still a David versus giant Goliath kind of battle.

As Goldin wrote in an essay for Artforum about her campaign: “The Sacklers made their fortune promoting addiction.... They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.”

Norval Morrisseau also battled addiction issues, and as a result was exploited by many people, including a nefarious character that Morrisseau called “the dope dealer,” according to Kastner’s film. Another interviewee describes the relationship between the artist and the drug lord. “He saw a wonderful business opportunity. With Morrisseau’s paintings, he could convert drug money into money you could buy a car or a house with, it could be surfaced.”

As the death threats, loutish trolling and criminal activities documented in There Are No Fakes make clear, people will do vicious and ugly things in the name of protecting their investment. One of the Morrisseau collectors in the film states he would gladly kill his courtroom rival, rather than lose money.

Magnify this ruthlessness by millions upon millions of dollars and you get some sense of what art-washing is really about.

Greed — rapacious, gross and corrosive as acid — might be the ultimate addiction.

*Story clarified June 14 at 2:30 p.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Film

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