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Trio charged in Morrisseau art-fraud case return to court in June

Three men accused of making and selling fake paintings by renowned Ontario First Nations artist Norval Morrisseau
Yellow Portal Blue White Bear by Norval Morrisseau.

The wheels of justice continue to grind slowly with the direct indictment of three southern Ontario men, charged in connection with a fraudulent art ring, in Ontario Superior Court.

Jeffrey Cowan, 47, of Niagara-on-the-Lake, told the court Monday he is retaining a lawyer for the judicial pre-trial, motions and the trial itself. He will make a status appearance in court April 30 at 10:30 a.m.

The three men are accused of making and selling fake paintings by renowned Ontario Indigenous artist Norval Morrisseau. Charged are Cowan, 81-year-old James White of Essa Township and David Bremner, 75, who is from the Markham area.

All three are scheduled to be back for pre-trial on June 4 at 2 p.m.

A status appearance occurs between an initial appearance and a hearing or trial. It provides a chance to check the status of the case, deal with scheduling issues, determine if a settlement is possible, etc.

In early 2023, Ontario Provincial Police and the Thunder Bay Police Service announced they had busted an alleged 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.

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

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

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

The OPP and the Thunder Bay police announced an investigation into the allegations launched in 2020 called Project Totton. Eight people were arrested, five in Thunder Bay and the three others being prosecuted in Barrie.

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.

Five people were accused in Thunder Bay: David John Voss, 51; Diane Marie Champagne, 63; Gary Bruce Lamont, 61; Linda Joy Tkachyk, 59; and Benjamin Paul Morrisseau, 53, who is the artist’s nephew.

Lamont pleaded guilty in December to one count of forgery and one count of defrauding the public above $5,000. He was sentenced to five years in custody minus pre-sentence custody of one year. As part of Lamont's plea, all charges against Tkachyk were withdrawn.

Ontario Superior Court heard in the agreed statement of facts in Lamont’s case that, between 2002 and 2019, he oversaw the production of numerous Morrisseau forgeries, which were then sold to mostly intermediaries before being sold to private collectors and galleries.

This particular forgery ring, headed by Lamont and operated in Thunder Bay, is believed to have produced 190 fakes, 117 of which have been seized by police.

Lamont’s sentence will be served concurrently with a two-year sentence he is already serving after pleading guilty to sexual assault charges, also last December.

The Crown did not seek a restitution order for the costs of the forged works, arguing there was no real possibility Lamont could or would pay such restitution. Victims can still seek restitution through civil action. All seized artworks are to be forfeited, though a separate forfeiture hearing will be scheduled for those who wish to retain ownership

— With files from