02/03/2014 10:59 EST | Updated 04/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Lawsuits allege Norval Morrisseau paintings fake

A Toronto lawyer says an art fraud ring is operating out of Thunder Bay — and he plans to prove it in court.

Two lawsuits accuse a Toronto gallery of selling forgeries of work by the late First Nations artist Norval Morrisseau.

Allegations that fake paintings were in circulation began threatening the northern Ontario-born Morrisseau's legacy even before his death in 2007, but not one has resulted in charges or been proven in court.    

Now, two high-profile Canadians – John McDermott and Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn – have filed lawsuits against a Toronto art dealer.

Both are suing Joseph McLeod and the Maslak-McLeod Gallery for allegedly selling them fake Morrisseau paintings.

McLeod vigorously denies the claim, according to his lawyer, Brian Shiller.

"Those paintings are authentic works of art by Norval Morrisseau and Mr. McLeod stands by his appraisal that they are,” he said.

Legacy 'besmirched'

But the lawyer for McDermott and Hearn said Morrisseau himself was concerned the paintings were fake.

Jonathan Sommer said he will present his theory on where at least one of them came from in court. 

"The likely source of it seems to be Thunder Bay and, in particular, a fraud ring,” he said.

Sommer said he will also present additional independent evidence proving the paintings are fake and called the situation "sad."

"It is deeply unfortunate that [Morrisseau's] legacy is being besmirched by this controversy," he told CBC News. "And that, you know, a man whose work should be celebrated and we should look at in awe is now a work that whenever it's put on a wall, there's a question about it.  The questions … being asked [are] because [my clients] care about this legacy and they care about this art."

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Shiller called the accusations against his client false and said they were not only damaging to McLeod, but to the art community as a whole.

"These are beautiful works of art in galleries right across this country. [They] are authentic works of art of Norval Morrisseau and people are afraid to buy them because of these allegations," he said.

Shiller noted that a court recently dismissed a similar claim filed by a southern Ontario woman against his client, also alleging that she had been sold a fake Morrisseau painting.

In that case, Shiller argued that the expert witness testifying that the painting was fake was not credible, partly because he had a vested interest as a competing art dealer.    

'No ongoing investigation'

As for the fraud ring accusation, Shiller said forgeries are always possible with any renowned artist, but he doubted a mass-production ring existed.  

Shiller added that even if a fraud ring did exist, his client certainly wasn't involved.  

"The allegation that Mr. McLeod's involved in a fraud ring is simply preposterous," he said. "They will never produce evidence that Mr. McLeod was involved in a fraud ring, particularly where they name the people who were involved in the fraud and Mr. McLeod doesn't know any of them, has never spoken to any of them and has had no business relationship with any of them at all."

The Thunder Bay Police Service has investigated fraud allegations involving Morrisseau's works in the past, but never laid any charges. 

Police spokesperson Chris Adams issued the following statement to CBC News:

"An investigation was conducted by the Thunder Bay Police in 2000 regarding allegations of fake Morrisseau paintings. That investigation did not result in any charges. The RCMP file was reviewed in 2010 by our service. Once again, the investigation could not go forward. It was virtually impossible to verify the origin of the paintings. I can't tell you the exact number of paintings in question, but the investigation was extensive. This concluded our involvement. There is no ongoing investigation."

'Not appropriate to comment'

Morrisseau's paintings are displayed in galleries across Canada.

The Thunder Bay Art Gallery has more than 90 Morrisseau works.

CBC News contacted the gallery to ask for its reaction to the art fraud lawsuits.

In a statement, the gallery said that because none of the allegations have been proven, it's not appropriate for it to comment on matters currently before the courts.