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Accused in art-fraud case to be prosecuted in Superior Court

Unusual move bypasses provincial court and overrides ability to have preliminary hearing; Group alleged to have made and sold fake paintings by renowned Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau
File photo. | Photo from Ontario Provincial Police

The Crown has opted for a direct indictment for three southern Ontario men charged in connection with a fraudulent art ring, accused of making and selling fake paintings by renowned Ontario Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau.

The unusual move bypasses provincial court and overrides the ability for the accused to have a preliminary hearing.

Appearing before Superior Court Justice Michelle Fuerst via a video link on Thursday, Crown attorney Joseph Heller of Ontario’s serious fraud office told the court that a direct indictment had been issued for James White, 81, of Essa Township; David Bremner, 75, of the Markham area; and Jeffrey Cowan, 47, of Niagara-on-the-Lake. They are expected to return to court May 30.

Last month, the OPP and the Thunder Bay Police Service announced they had busted an art ring they say is responsible for an “apparent decades-long art fraud” that resulted in the manufacture and distribution of more than 1,000 paintings being passed off as Morrisseau's work.

Morrisseau, also known as Copper Thunderbird, was the founder of the Woodlands School of Canadian art and often considered the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada. His work was characterized by thick black outlines and bright colours. 

Prior to his death in 2007, he expressed concerns over others painting and selling art in his name. In 2005, he established the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society, which was designed to compile a database of his paintings with the intent of discrediting forgeries.

A 2020 documentary, There Are No Fakes, focuses on concerns over Morrisseau forgeries.

In a news release last month following the arrest of eight people, five in Thunder Bay and the three others being prosecuted in Barrie, the OPP and the Thunder Bay Police Service announced an investigation into the allegations was launched in 2020 called Project Totton.

Police have said more than 1,000 alleged fraudulent paintings, prints and other artworks were seized. Some of the paintings sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

The five accused in Thunder Bay — David John Voss, 51; Diane Marie Champagne, 63; Gary Bruce Lamont, 61; Linda Joy Tkachk, 59; and Benjamin Paul Morrisseau, 53 — were scheduled for an appearance there earlier this week, also in Superior Court.