Great Canadian Cultural Heroes #3 & 4
Randy Potter from Port Hope, ON, easily wins my vote for the “Last Honest Auctioneer.” Here’s why:
The words “crooked auctioneer” go together like ham ‘n cheese, or peanut butter and jam. It is something I know more about than anyone you know because over the last 15 years I have attended literally hundreds of antique and fine art auctions and previews – going to two or three a week, all over southern Ontario, but also in Ottawa, Calgary, and Vancouver.
I have been ripped off, cheated, lied to, and conned, numerous times, in spite of being more savvy than most, about all the ways auctioneers boost sales and separate a sucker from his cash. But I have perhaps been bamboozled less frequently than most of my colleagues on the auction circuit.
Even at the marquee fine art auctions I have seen men in suits lie scores of times, looking the audience straight in the face, claiming they have sold this or that painting to entirely fictitious beings: “the woman behind the post, or “the man at the back,” etc., and then asking exit signs, and fire extinguishers to “hold your card a little higher please.”
Or thanking ceiling fixtures or door knobs for their purchase, when, there was not a real buyer there, or a painting sold, or a card held up, or anyone that needed thanking. Auctioneers in suits act like this, many scores of times in an auction because they don’t want the audience to feel that nothing is selling, and so get cold feet about spending or consigning.
Or do shill bidding; using “exit lights,” or curtains, to do proxy bids to move the one real bidder they do have in the audience to his maximum and the minimum the auction will sell it for. The bidder thinks he’s bidding in a fair market place, against another real bidder, and thus establishing the item’s real value. When there is actually no one else bidding there at all. You’re being taken for a ride by the auctioneers, way beyond what the market says the painting is really worth.
So auctioneers often lie. It’s all part of their trade.
At a recent Toronto fine art auction the auctioneer said “Pass” twice in an auction, meaning he acknowledged to the audience that only two items had not met their reserve and hence did not sell. Out of some 300 lots he had auctioned off.
In fact, data published days later, as “Prices Realized,” showed that, in actuality he had failed to sell or find a buyer for over 35% of his offerings.
Those, of course, included the numerous times when he thanked the fire extinguisher for buying, or asked the light fixture to lift his paddle number “a little bit higher please” and after an appropriate pause to give the light fixture time to respond, said a heartfelt “thank you.”
Glaringly misleading behavior by auctioneers is commonly on display at many auctions.
Is there an honest auctioneer out there?
I always thought so – solicitously charming a prospective buyer into bidding is standard salesman behavior – until, every time I brought up the subject, with another auction-going colleague, and the name of an auctioneer I thought was a good candidate, I was quickly set straight with, “Well, listen to this – true story – because this is what he did to me.” The facts of the story soon made it abundantly clear that my colleague had proven his point, and I had to look for another candidate for an “honest auctioneer.”
Fifteen years and counting, I’ve despaired of ever adding to my list of “honest auctioneers.”
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Fine art auctions and Norval Morrisseau paintings have become high profile in the news over the last dozen years, as alleged “crooked auctioneers” are accused of selling Norval’s forgeries by the thousands.
- The Morrisseau art cartel has quite viciously, and repeatedly, targeted Randy Potter as a particularly awful kind of allegedly crooked auctioneer, publicly accusing him aggressively, of supposedly, deliberately, selling hundreds, some say as many as 2,000, forged Morrisseau paintings, and doing it knowingly, fully aware that they’re fakes, but doing it year after year, for the money, and just ripping innocent people off with his cold and calculating auctioneering crookedness.
The charge is shameful and despicable; I know, from fact, that the truth is the polar opposite.
Randy Potter & Donna Shea – Randy Potter and his wife Donna Shea have run Randy Potter Auctions for years, first out of Pickering in the late 1990s, and then from Port Hope from around 2000 on, till they took a breather sometime around 2008.
I do not really know Randy or Donna. I have never socialized with them. I have not been at their house, or they at mine, and we have never dined out together.
I met them, and know them, only as many hundreds of others have done, by going to their auctions over the years.
Let me tell you about that “crooked” auctioneering couple, Randy Potter and Donna Shea.
I first ran into them, probably in 1998, when hunting antiques, and soon discovered that Randy is a rough diamond, no doubt a handful-and-a-half, for his wife Donna, who is a professional nurse in her real job.
The Antique Ivory Scrimshaw – I had my heart set on an antique “ivory” scrimshaw he had at an auction, and called him over. It was the first time I ever talked to him. So I asked, the usual “How do you tell if it’s real?”
How many times I’ve been bamboozled by auctioneers who quickly spot a “live one,” and are eager to talk him up to bid high, just to boost his bottom line.
But not Randy. He knew I was excited with the discovery, but said “Well, stick a hot needle in it. If it goes in, it’s a plastics compound. If it doesn’t you’ve got ivory.”
I looked at him. Our eyes met. “But I wouldn’t stick a pin in that one.”
I could tell instantly that Randy knew, the minute he’d opened his mouth, he’d lost a high bidder.
But, to him, what he did was the right thing, as I could tell, he had been taught by someone a long time ago…
- I was truly taken aback. Randy Potter had knowingly taken money – a lot of money – out of his own pocket, and put it in mine. Of a guy he’d never met, and might never meet again.
And lost a possible few hundred dollars in doing so.
Do that a few dozen times at an auction with other customers and you’re soon down multi-thousands in possible income.
Not a good economic model.
And for what? Just a matter of personal principle?
I was grateful that not everyone has an MBA that teaches them how to run their business without a conscience.
The Hider Battleship Painting – After years of looking I finally saw a listing for a favorite painter of mine, AH Hider. It was a big oil, of an unnamed battleship steaming on the high seas.
Art Hider was one of Canada’s top artists at the end of the 19th century and early 20th, was famous for his historical and horse racing pictures, and was hugely in demand for advertising illustrations for calendars, war recruiting posters, and ocean line shipping prints.
I had numerous glorious web pages promoting him as a superb, but undeservedly lesser known, great Canadian painter. I wanted the world to know about him. His family was ecstatic about my website.
The listing was at a Randy Potter auction.
We got up early to be first in the door so I could examine the painting closely before the crush of people arrived. There was hardly anyone there when I arrived.
I got a shock. The painting was displayed on a special easel at the centre of the front of the auction hall to make sure everyone saw it and knew that Randy considered it special.
All of which I hated because I wanted items I want to buy to be in the back corner or under a rug. Putting them up front – and egads on an easel no less! – brings too many high bidders.
I desperately wanted him to shove it to the back of the room, take it off the easel, and put it on the floor, but said nothing. It was his right to promote each item to the best of his ability so he can get the best exposure and the best prices for his consignees.
Then I got another shock.
Plastered all around the painting were seven or eight pages of printouts in colour of my website promoting Hider as a great unknown, but very valuable, Canadian painter, etc.
In short, as my website pages seemed to suggest, Randy had found a sleeper painting that should be worth a lot of money for some lucky bidder. I could see the painting slipping out of my reach, thanks to the hype from my own web site, which Randy was using to promote his item.
In fact my website hype had propelled the painting on to the easel, and to the front of the room. And now it’s glorious pages screamed out “You’re dumb if you don’t buy this rare painting, and make yourself a lot of money!”
I gnashed my teeth.
In my mind’s eye, I saw a painting I hoped to get for merely hundreds of dollars, go for several thousands, and well out of my reach.
It was anguishing, after years of waiting and looking for Art Hider works, which rarely come up for sale.
This time I just couldn’t hold myself back, and went over to Randy, whom I probably hadn’t seen for at least a year.
- “Holy cow Randy, you’re using my own propaganda, from my own website, against me to bid me up on a painting I really wanted to bid on… Geez…” I looked anguished, tried a thin smile, and left it at that, hanging… I knew, by all that is fair, I didn’t have the right to say it…
I expected him to say, “Sorry, but I’m trying to do the best for my consignors. We found that on the internet and so thought it was nice promotional stuff our customers would like to know.” And smile, you know, like “that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” unfortunately, in the auction business.
And I remembered the old saw, you hear constantly at auctions, where friends who attend often end up bidding against each other, excusing it all with, “You know… No friends at an auction.” Always delivered with a smile, of course. I’ve known of close friendships broken because of that…
It was really what he, as a businessman, should have said, I knew it. Donna, had she been listening in, would probably have said so as well. “C’mon Randy. What are you? An auctioneer, or some kind of bleeding heart…?”
Randy said not a word, but purposefully walked over to the Hider painting, and semi-apologetically tore down all the promotional pages from around the painting, and stuffed them in the garbage.
I couldn’t believe it… I was stunned.
Randy Potter had taken money out of his pocket and put it into mine.
I believed it was a lot of money, possibly a thousand or two thousand dollars…
For the second time, for a guy he really didn’t know. And might never see again.
Multiply that a few dozen times in an auction for different customers… the math wasn’t good for a business.
But someone a long time ago had raised Randy to be the kind of guy he was. And he just couldn’t be different than he was taught…
And for some reason he wouldn’t, or couldn’t change. It’s funny but upbringing can do that to some people.
Randy should have taken an MBA. Then he could have learned how to run his business without a conscience. And do it only for the money, regardless of the cost to others, and the damage to his self-respect.
People now started to drift in. When the auction started the place was packed. None had seen my web promo Randy had removed from around the painting.
- My research – of course I didn’t share it with anyone in the auction hall – confirmed that it’s a magnificent oil of the battleship Prince of Wales which had brought Winston Churchill to meet with President Roosevelt in Placentia Bay in Newfoundland during World War II. It is shown, months later, steaming in the company of another battleship HMS Repulse in the background. They are on the way to meet their doom, both to be sunk, with thousands of their crew, by Japanese air attack in the Pacific. It sealed the end of battleships as useful ships of war.
It was probably painted by Hider sometime in 1941 when the sinkings made world headlines, for use on a calendar or poster.
It hangs in a special place in my house, but I don’t think of all the history when I look at it.
Instead, I think of Randy Potter, an auctioneer who made it possible, by deliberately taking money out of his pocket and putting it into mine.
A guy he hardly even knew.
The Morrisseau BDP Paintings – One day, in January 2000, when my wife and I went to one of his auctions, Randy Potter had numerous big Morrisseaus plastered around the walls of his auction hall. They were huge acrylics in glowing colour on canvas. They were not framed, just pinned up at the top by thumb tacks. So you could flip them over to read all the writing which most of them had on the back.
And they totally dominated the auction hall, they were so stunning. Probably about 20 in all.
They were the biggest and most glorious Morrisseaus I’d ever seen. These and most of the other hundreds I was to see there, over the next eight years or so were BDPs, “1970s style, paintings, black drybrush signed, titled, and dated on the back” with Norval’s large and generous hand. (Glossary: BDPs)
We had been following Norval’s life and art for some 30 years at that point, and had spent decades involved in living in remote Aboriginal villages as educators, and producing educational film and television programs with, for, and about First Nations groups and organizations. In the late 70s we were friends with novelist Sheila Burnford (Incredible Journey, Bell Ria) who together with her friend Susan Ross had introduced Jack Pollock to Norval Morrisseau in 1962.
Reality Check 2000 – Remember, this was in the days before there was a Morrisseau Forgery Conspiracy, nor Conspiracy Theorists. There was no claim of forgers or forgeries of Morrisseaus by anyone, anywhere. None… nix… nada…
Not by Robinson; not by Morrisseau; not by Vadas; not by Milrad; not by Ritchie Sinclair.
In fact, Morrisseau collectors and retailers from near and far would end up finding their way to Randy Potters to try to snag some of these artistic treasures, which a longtime Morrisseau collector, facing hard times, was now dumping on the market to raise some cash.
And proudly preening himself in the midst of the glory of it all was Donald Robinson, Principal Morrisseau Dealer, doing everything – and then some – in his power to try to grab all the artistic treasures that he could for himself.
The scuttlebutt among the local intellectuals in the small town auction – you know the ones whose idea of fine art is hanging a calendar in the outdoor privy – was scoffing. “C’mon, get real. No artist can have 20 big paintings for sale at once. And he had twenty others a month ago.”
I walked over to Randy who was leaning on a counter top, surveying the crowd.
“Hey, Randy, where’d you get these?”
“Oh some guy had a bunch, and was tired of getting ripped off by guys in fancy suits in downtown Trawna. He thought we ran an honest auction out here so he’s sending them to us. He’s happy with what we’ve done for him, so he sends us more from time to time.”
“You think they’re really genuine Morrisseaus?”
His reply was no-nonsense brusque, and hardly what you’d expect from an auctioneer, who is supposed to be a hard-assed salesman.
“Hell, don’t ask me. Haven’t got a clue. I’m no art expert… If you want to ask someone, ask that guy over there. He’s a big shot art dealer from Toronto, who buys from me all the time. He seems to think they’re real. He wrote the book on Morrisseau. Ask him if they’re real or not.”
And that was all he said, Dear Diary, not a word more.
How many hundred times, in a similar situation, have I been regaled and massaged with glowing tales of the “fantastic” offering an auctioneer had found. How wonderful and valuable the find, pumping up to the maximum the worth of something I knew he didn’t really have a clue about but was hyping to get sales. It was the norm in the auction business; lying to promote sales.
But Randy was no ordinary auctioneer.
Donald Robinson: Principal Morrisseau Dealer – I looked over at the person he was pointing to, a man at the wall, studiously flipping up the bottoms of the Morrisseau canvases to examine the writing on the backs.
That man turned out to be Donald Robinson, who, a year and a half later, would do the most astonishing about face in Canadian art history, and would maliciously attack and defame Randy Potter and publicly accuse him of being some kind of lowlife scammer, knowingly selling fake Morrisseaus to hundreds of ignorant buyers.
But on this day he was singing a different tune. He was praising the art and telling anyone who would listen that they should buy it. That day he ended up being the happy purchaser of ten fine canvases himself.
On the same day my wife and I ended up with two very fine Morrisseaus for which the bidding was stronger than on most of the others. But having long been visual artists by profession, as well as art collectors, we know a good painting when we see it.
In line at the office counter, to pay for our successful Morrisseau purchases, we struck up a conversation with Donald Robinson. He asked which ones we got and he confessed that he was the under bidder on both of them, telling us grimly – obviously still feeling the loss – that they were “very fine Morrisseaus.”
(It would turn out that he had given them his 3rd and 4th highest bids, that he would make over a six month period, on the 28 lot purchases he would make at Potters. But he bailed out against our passionate winning bids.)
The Guy Who Wrote the Book -Aware of the typical gossip among the local types around the auction hall, that Randy’s paintings couldn’t be real Morrisseaus, but were possibly fakes, we asked Donald Robinson directly, “Are these real or fakes?”
He laughed, and said firmly. “Oh, they’re real alright. Trust me! I’m the guy who wrote the book on Morrisseau.” (“Travels to the House of Invention,” in 1997) In 2012, in court testimony, he would claim that at the time (2000) he had already been an experienced expert in selling Morrisseau art for 18 years. (Claim in court transcripts 2012)
As I started to roll up the canvases, with the acrylic turned in, thinking to protect the paint surface from rubbing on outside surfaces and picking up dirt, he stopped me and said, “Don’t do that. Your roll’s too tight and you’ll compress and crack the acrylic by rolling it in on itself.”
Then he showed me how he was rolling his, in a large diameter roll, with the acrylic on the outside to take the strain off the paint surface.
He invited us down to see his gallery. A couple of days later we went, and he gave us a tour.
We noted his prices for typical Morrisseaus was from $9,000 to $12,000, and thought, hey, not a bad business, after buying them at Randy Potters for $800 to $900 each.
He also recommended that we use the same kind of frame he used for all his Morrisseaus, and gave us the name of his framer whom we then used.
The Birth of the Conspiracy Theory – May 18, 2001
Sixteen months later we read, with astonishment, in Murray Whyte’s article in the National Post, on May 18, 2001, that Robinson now claimed – specifically targeting Randy Potter – there were hundreds of fake Morrisseaus out there. Robinson was to claim that every Morrisseau Randy sold was an easy-to-tell forgery, and that Randy knew it and kept up his alleged deception. And that Randy was the willing and conniving conduit for a diabolical group of forgers madly painting fake paintings for him to sell. Thousands of them…
Just what the hell is going on here…?
One moment Robinson’s desperate to buy my two paintings; the next he claims, like all the others, they’re lousy fakes?
To me, at the time, the claim and Donald Robinson’s total and inexplicable about face, was preposterous and totally unbelievable; 12 years later I am more certain than ever of that. And a growing mountain of incontrovertible scientific evidence and courtroom testimony, by Robinson, and by many others has proven me right.
In fact both my paintings were forensically examined in 2011 and 2012, and each found by one of Canada’s top forensic document examiners and handwriting analysis experts, to have been signed, with DNA certainty, by Norval Morrisseau, and by no one else.
Just two of some 70 or so separate forensic findings that prove Robinson to be more wrong in appraising art than anyone I’ve ever heard of, in world art history.
By 2013, the Robinson claims of 2001, and the years since, have all been utterly reduced to little more than the elementary basics of MBA 101: corner the market, knock out your competitors, and manipulate supply and demand.
Consider these facts:
I went to more Randy Potter auctions, from 1999 to 2008, than Robinson ever did, often when there were Morrisseaus for sale. I saw, and examined more Morrisseaus there than he ever did, and saw more of them sold.
Never once – not a single time – did I ever hear Randy Potter hype his Morrisseau paintings, in any way shape or form, to me, or to anyone else.
He was not a huckster, nor a hustler, nor a con-man in any sense of the word. He was the polar opposite of the fictional man Robinson tried to portray him to be in the National Post, and in the years since.
It was frankly one of the most malicious defamations I’ve ever encountered in Canadian history.
Randy was, in fact, the antithesis of the popular view of an auctioneer.
He hawked his Morrisseaus, exactly like he did his silverware, his furniture, his ceramics, his bicycles etc., just as “stuff” he was offering on auction day.
I have seen scores of auctioneers, at hundreds of auctions, over many years, hype the bejeesus out of paintings they have for sale, trying to wring every possible dollar out of some gullible dunce in the audience.
Randy Potter is not among them.
He never gave the Morrisseaus any hype of any kind at all, other than calling out “Now we have Lot #145 a Morrisseau.” In fact he would sometimes hype non-Morrisseau stuff if he had a great “Coca-Cola” advertising sign someone consigned, or use reliable third party promo info, like he planned to do for my Hider painting.
But never his Morrisseaus. Totally In line with his confession to me that, “Hell, don’t ask me. Haven’t got a clue. I’m no art expert.”
To claim anything else is totally dishonest, and reprehensible.
In fact, when the first shipment of Morrisseaus was sent to him and his wife Donna Shea – a nurse by profession – they realized they knew nothing about Norval or his art and hit on their strategy to sell them. Testified Donna in court:
- “… when we got those paintings, we knew nothing about Morrisseau paintings. So my husband, the auctioneer; got on the telephone and called the galleries in Toronto that dealt with all of the native art. There was numerous ones. He called them and said… we have these paintings, the Morrisseau paintings, they are going up for sale on a certain night, if you would like to come down and see them, you are more than welcome to check them out. We had numerous galleries that came down, and they were sold. The gallery people bought them, and these are the people that were to know, and supposed to know, what a Norval Morrisseau looked like.” (Court Trans/Otavnik v Sinclair: Mar 18, 2010 p20)
In the end, some 200 of Canada’s top First Nations galleries, Morrisseau collectors, and fine art dealers would buy Morrisseaus from Randy and Donna. Including Donald Robinson who, according to his bidding behaviour, came prepared to spend some $168,000 on some 90 Morrisseau paintings he set out to buy.
Refunds for Fake Morrisseaus – Out of some 2,000 sales, over 10 years, not a single Morrisseau painting was ever returned to Randy Potter for a refund. Not a single customer ever asked for his money back, or complained they were sold a fake. A truly awesome encomium for honesty for a retail business, of an astonishing 100%. Name me the Toronto businessman who can claim that?
And even Robinson, who bought 31 Morrisseaus for $53,228.73 never brought a single one back, never asked for a refund, nor complained to Randy he was sold a fake.
- “Mr. Donald Robinson has never returned or attempted to return any of the Norval Morrisseau paintings he purchased from my auction and later implied were fake in the May 18, 2001, National Post article.” (Affidavit, Randy Potter, Mar 11, 2005)
And another thing: Robinson, whose chutzpah is nothing if not legendary, did bring back one painting he claimed was a fake, demanding a refund for $267.50 cents. But – you won’t believe this – not for a Morrisseau, but for a Robert Davidson…
Without saying a word – I’m absolutely certain – Randy, with no questions asked, paid Robinson the entire amount he demanded, down to the last 50 cents.
And, in the process, going far, far beyond the bounds of what any other retailer, let alone any auctioneer, on the planet, would ever do to satisfy a disgruntled customer.
Because Robinson, in another display of his legendary chutzpah, came back to demand a refund on the Davidson, a full 14 months after buying the painting.
No auction anywhere in Canada would ever have given him a refund, even had he brought it back a day after buying it. And no Canadian fine art auction will give refunds beyond a month after purchase and then only if you have incontrovertible proof from an accepted independent authority that your painting is a fake.
They would have all, unanimously, laughed Robinson out of the building.
Robinson very well knew all that. It was all standard in the professional world he lived in.
But he knew something else too, of which he was equally sure.
That Randy Potter was a decent guy, far above the norm in the auction – let alone the fine art business.
That Robinson could demand something so absolutely inappropriate for a long-ago completed sales transaction because he knew Randy would come through, with the $267.50, no matter how outrageous was Robinson’s demand.
But Robinson knew something else: he had to move fast – in a manner of speaking – if he ever expected to get his 200 bucks back.
He very well knew, the day he went to get his refund, that he had already slammed Randy in private to a journalist who would publish the next month, in the national media, his accusation that Randy was a lowlife scammer. He probably knew after his accusations came out, in the National Post, even Randy’s good will might have been stretched past the point of no return, and he might not give him back his two hundred bucks.
This is all stunning proof that actions speak louder than words, all around.
About the honesty of some people.
Which brings us back to the alleged Morrisseau fakes… With all the evidence in, where, on the planet, is there a single person left, anywhere, who believes that Robinson personally, truly believed the 31 Morrisseau paintings he bought at Potters really were fakes?
Would a guy who played hardball over $200 just throw away $54,000 on fake paintings?
In the end, for all their malicious defamation in the national media and the courts, neither Donald Robinson nor his Conspiracy Theorists ever took Randy Potter to court.
Which has to be the ultimate proof for sincerity.
Why not? Obviously none of them had proof of anything, but that their claims would only get them laughed out of a police station or a court. And they very well knew it. Why?
Because all along the Conspiracy Theory was nothing more than just shabby MBA 101.
MBA 101: Market Manipulation – Plan 1 – Why the vitriol against Randy Potter?
Partly it was because Randy Potter was the feeder line for funneling hundreds of 1970s Morrisseaus from private collections to many of the Kinsman Robinson Galleries major business competitors across Canada.
And they were siphoning off the buyers because they were selling a lot cheaper than at KRG. Clearly KRG business was hurting as it was pricing itself out of the market by January 2000.
Then with truly staggering chutzpah that is hard to imagine, Robinson tried a variety of tactics to make money off Randy’s good fortune in acquiring sales rights for so many fabulous Morrisseaus.
Robinson desperately sought a way to cut a deal for himself, so he could funnel all the money to himself, and secondly so he could control the flow to the market in a way that would not undermine the high priced sales at his own Kinsman Robinson Galleries.
“Gimme the Source” – In an affidavit (2005) and court testimony (2010), Donna Shea – who, as Vice-President of Randy Potter Estate Auctions Ltd., and as a professional nurse, is a vigorous and assertive personality in her own right, said Donald Robinson tried to make her do something he knew was utterly unprincipled.
- “Mr. Donald Robinson made a number of attempts to discover the source and contact names of the Norval Morrisseau paintings being auctioned at Kahn Auctions during this timeframe.” (Affidavit, Donna Shea, Mar 11, 2005)
Robinson demanded Donna give him the name of the consignor, obviously so he could contact him, and try to make an end run around Randy and Donna, and strike a side deal to siphon off future Morrisseau consignments to Robinson, instead of Potter.
This was Robinson’s attempt to get Donna to break the sacrosanct law of all auction houses, which he very well knew was followed by all the top fine art auctioneers in Toronto: to not disclose the identity or address that was the heart of the private confidentially agreement between a consignor and an auction.
In fact Robinson follows it himself with paintings he sells in his art gallery. He will not disclose where he got a painting he sells, nor from whom he bought it.
It stands to reason; no gallery owner wants a buyer to call up the previous owner to find out that a painting he paid $10,000 for, the gallery had bought for $400 at an auction. And then tarted up with a gallery label and perhaps even some provenance as “coming directly from the artist.”
Donna stuck to the ethical conventions standard in her business, and absolutely refused to betray her confidentially agreement with her consignors. She has an obligation to them first, and then to her business. Why should she do something that would undermine her reputation and her ability to make a living?
Being rebuffed at trying to siphon off business for himself from the flood of fine Morrisseaus coming on to the market, Robinson was clearly squirming in his suit.
“Gimme a Cut” – Donald Robinson ultimately discovered the identity of the Morrisseau art consignor (David Voss) and tried to talk him into dumping Randy and Donna, to abandon their auction, and to sell his paintings through the Kinsman Robinson Galleries.
David Voss put his back up to what he called Robinson’s “threatening manner,” and considered his business “tactics he used are low down if not dirty,” and unprecedented in his long experience with many other people in the business.
“I told him I wanted nothing to do with him and that in the future it would be better not to use threats to begin a business relationship. He has tried several times since then to contact me.” (David Voss Declaration, Oct. 29, 2001)
It was exactly because of the arrogant “big shot” role players in suits from downtown Trawna, that are so notoriously infamous all over Canada, that Voss actually decided to send his hundreds of painting to a small town auction of decent, salt of the earth, country people like Randy Potter and Donna Shea.
Robinson, rebuffed again, must have been boiling in his suit.
“Slow ‘er Down” – Finally Robinson asked Donna Shea to slow down the flood of Morrisseaus, saying that so many coming on to the market at once were deflating his gallery prices, as people were buying from Potters for $1,000 instead of from him for $10,000.
- Note: This was exactly an echo of what was to happen with Riopelle in 2003, when his widow announced she was going to dump 50 of his works on the market at once. Two daughters of the artist successfully petitioned the court to stop the sale, complaining the value of their paintings would be damaged by the sudden glut on the market.
Obviously Robinson too, was in a panic. He had failed to capture the source and suppliers of all the paintings. Now, like the Riopelle daughters, he wanted to control the outflow, and he wanted Randy and Donna to help him out to manipulate the market for his own financial benefit.
- “Mr. Donald Robinson was concerned about the number of Norval Morrisseau paintings being sold at Kahn Auctions and cautioned us to slow down the number of paintings being sold as he could not sell them as quickly at his gallery.” (Affidavit, Donna Shea, Mar 11, 2005)
Donna refused. As auctioneers they sell in bulk, and what consignors send they expect to be sold pronto, and the cash sent immediately. Doing market manipulation to help out Kinsman Robinson Galleries business plan was not part of their mandate.
They had no interest in pinching off the supply just to help Robinson maintain his high gallery prices. They had bills to pay today. Their consignor, David Voss, would not have been happy at delaying sales just to help out a “Trawna suit,” especially when it was Donald Robinson.
- “I am frustrated to say the least, that people like Donald Robinson have such control over the market that he does what he wants and does not care who he hurts or what damage he does. Someone should remind him if it wasn’t for the small collectors he wouldn’t exist.” (David Voss Declaration, Oct. 29, 2001)
Robinson was now triply unhappy with Donna Shea and Randy Potter Estate Auctions Ltd.
The good fortune was flowing to everyone but him… as this fabulous collection was being dispersed across Canada through all the top fine art galleries.
What made Robinson quadruply unhappy was the fact that the prices they were offering Morrisseaus for, were far below what he was charging for his… And these competing paintings were all coming from Norval Morrisseau’s prime years during the 1970s.
In March 2000, Robinson stopped buying Morrisseaus at Potters, and retired to the backrooms of the Kinsman Robinson Galleries to consider his options…
His main supplier of paintings, Norval Morrisseau. had long ago dried up as a source for paintings for him. In fact Norval’s son, Christian, said 1995 marked the end of his father’s career as a painter.
David Voss wasn’t playing ball; Randy and Donna weren’t playing ball… And funneling all the good stuff to Robinson’s business competitors…
What to do, now?
Randy kept selling scores more Morrisseaus, from David Voss, mostly from Norval’s high period, the 1970s. They were almost all BDPs.
Surely MBA 101, had a strategy for that, somewhere…
MBA 101: Market Manipulation – Plan 2
A year later Randy and Donna were thunderstruck, along with countless other Morrisseau collectors and retailers across Canada, to see Randy Potter and Randy Potter’s Auctions being vilified in the National Post by Donald Robinson, as some kind of lowlife scammers, and sellers of hundreds of forgeries.
In court testimony in 2010, Robinson claimed he couldn’t really remember even talking to Donna Shea and couldn’t actually even recall her.
Donna, who’s a hands-on auction personality, seemingly everywhere at once, on the floor, on the phone, at the cash register, or joshing around with all her customers, certainly remembered Donald Robinson, who spent five long evenings at her auction and bought $54,000 worth of wonderful Morrisseaus from her. A very sociable gal, she certainly went out of her way to express her gratitude to a good client. In fact she’s every bit as memorable a personality as Randy.
Alas, it’s awful to get old and have your memory slip up on you.
Q. Mr. Robinson, did you have a conversation with Donna Shea at the auction, ever?
A. I may have. I don’t remember it.
Q. She testified that she remembers you, uh, not, not at all? You don’t remember any conversations at all?
A. No. (Court Trans/Otavnik v Sinclair: Mar 18, 2010 p154)
The “Dumb Indian” with the Magic Memory – Luckily Robinson had an artist who had no such mental failings, whatsoever. In the last decade of his life, Norval may have been a virtual quadriplegic, tied to his wheelchair, unable to hold his head up, or his tongue in his mouth, thanks to a lifetime of totally abusing his body and brain with extreme overindulgence in alcohol based substances (booze, perfume, shaving lotion), overdoses on extreme drugs, and wild sex with anything within reach (animal, mineral, or vegetable).
But Norval was fortunately blessed with a truly fabulous memory with total recall.
The Preposterous Mr. Robinson – As Donald Robinson told Murray Whyte, the same journalist to whom he denounced Potter Auctions as the source of nothing but forgeries. When Whyte suggested Morrisseau might not remember all of over 8,000 (Robinson claims it’s 10,000 or more) paintings he ever painted over a 50 year period, Robinson blasted him.
Saying it was “preposterous” for him to even suggest that Norval’s memory was not picture perfect. Because, insisted Robinson, it was.
“Mr. Robinson, however, said it was preposterous to think Mr. Morrisseau would not recognize his own work.
“It’s not possible,” he said. “Norval has an excellent memory for longer-term things. His mind is still very good.”
Mr. Morrisseau could not be reached for comment.” Wrote Murray Whyte, cryptically.
In that one sentence the entire underpinning for Whyte‘s article was destroyed. He should have cancelled the publication, because there are many other clearly sloppy factual juxtapositions, fallacious sub-titles, and incorrect word associations in the article, all of which contribute to causing the uninformed reader to believe utterly false facts, including that there were so-called “Robinson forgeries,” when the incontrovertible truth was, and is, that there were none, neither then, nor now. But hey, he had a deadline; he had spent the time; he had produced something; it was a neat idea… Baaahh, what the hell; it’s only about art… What could be the harm…?
Robinson was so desperate and “over the top” with his insistence for one simple reason: Norval’s ability at “TOTAL RECALL” – regardless of how utterly preposterous the claim was, to every other Canadian in the know – was his only proof, of any kind, that there were thousands of fakes out there, by umpteen diabolical forgers. He had nothing else, at all.
Robinson was clearly counting on two things: Norval’s infallible brain, and his own aggressive say so, were an unbeatable combo to make a Conspiracy Theory stick…
Other observers might say that it was Robinson who was “preposterous” with a totally unbelievable claim about his artist, who, in the last decade of his life, had unarguably the most wasted body of any prominent Canadian by far. Every single video tape in existence incontrovertibly shows this…
Could his mind be far behind?
Robinson said, “preposterous,” Norval never felt better, nor was his mind more far-seeing…
Doubting Thomases answered, well then, why does no video tape exist, or even audio files, anywhere on the planet, from Norval’s “Invalid Period” of him talking – let alone talking about fakes and forgeries, during the last ten years of his life?
And question why Robinson never produced him to demonstrate his fabulous memory?
There were many who said this was Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy all over again…
Shockingly – but tellingly – he couldn’t produce a talking Norval even for Whyte who ghosted his story of the alleged Potter fakes.
This article will always mark the nadir of Whyte’s journalistic career, for rushing off to publish without verifying Robinson’s accusations, with the supposed source, Norval Morrisseau, the man with the magical memory. Whyte said he tried to contact him but Morrisseau “was unavailable.” You know, like Charlie McCarthy…
Whyte would have to make do with Robinson, doing all the talking for the “Dumb Indian.”
Which suited Robinson just fine…
And on such frail, unreliable, and untrustworthy underpinnings the Morrisseau Forgery Conspiracy was founded…
In fact, speaking for a “Dumb Indian” can end you up in saying some dumb things yourself, as Robinson proved in court testimony in 2012, saying emphatically, as one of his key planks in his case for forgeries, that it was preposterous to suggest that even 500 paintings could come from a collector, nor even out of a “small place” like northern Ontario. Obviously not an area that Robinson has even a passing familiarity with.
- “I certainly can’t agree that you could obtain 500, or even worse 800, (originals) like this in northern Ontario…” Court Transcripts, p 18 Hatfield v Child, Sep 1, 2011)
I happen to know of individual collectors who have many hundreds, and know of another one who had about 1,000 Morrisseaus, which he obtained directly from the artist.
Said one friend who lived in Thunder Bay in the 60s, “Hey, everybody in Thunder Bay had Morrisseaus. Many people like us, had several.” Which would be proof enough that in Thunder Bay alone there could be thousands of Morrisseaus.
Even in the Whyte National Post article, where Robinson scoffed that so many genuine works could come from a single credible source, Whyte quoted a man who said exactly the opposite, in spades. Michael Rogozinski, President of Empire Auctions, who has generations of Canadian auction and fine art gallery blood in his veins – far more than Robinson – said breezily:
“Over the last 30 years, he (Morrisseau) would be on reserves and paint paintings for food and liquor. You give him acrylic paint and a canvas and tell him you’ll take him out for dinner and give him some liquor and he’ll paint. There are probably thousands of these things on reserves all over the country.” (National Post, Whyte, May 18, 2001)
Rogozinski said – directly targeting the Robinson thesis head on – in so many words, that lots of Morrisseaus are proof of Norval, not proof of forgeries. Leaving the understood conclusion unsaid, that only a total idiot would even think of making any fakes – let alone the thousands Robinson claimed – when thousands of originals are littered all over the place and can be picked up for a song or less…
It’s easy to see how a sharp-eyed hustler in the backwoods, seeing that the city folk down in Trawna seem to be developing a show, or something, down in Ottawa to honour Norval, could come up with a smart idea:
- “Hmmmh… why don’t I just go around and scoop up all these old canvases of Norval’s that I know are lying around all over the place up here: in garages, fish camps, under beds, in attics, log cabins, hunting lodges, pool halls, etc., and ship ‘em down to the panting city folks. They’ll cost me virtually nothing to buy and even a sale of $500 apiece is all pure profit for me.”
Which is exactly where David Voss came in…
Which is how this story began.
But how’s a suit from Trawna gonna know about any of that…?
The final word must go to a man whose family was in the Canadian fine art business before Donald Robinson was even born, Michael Rogozinski, who believes that common sense alone should dismiss the charge of thousands of forgeries by umpteen forgers.
“He’s a great artist and I respect him a great deal, but Norval Morrisseau’s paintings are not worth so much money that it’s worth someone’s while to sit there and paint forgeries.”
Make that one… let alone thousands…
This is the view universally held by informed observers in the Canadian fine art market, where the feeling is unanimous that the forgeries allegations are a hugely wrong-headed pretense that is ludicrous beyond belief. And their beliefs are backed up by scores of forensic reports by top Canadian scientists.
Why Donald Robinson and his family would publicly promote such a ludicrous Conspiracy Theory, against the common sense of countless informed Canadians like Rogozinski, and top independent Canadian forensic scientists, like Dr. Atul K Singla, Brian Lindblom, and Kenneth J. Davies, should be subjected to the most rigorous public scrutiny, because in doing so they have hugely damaged the Canadian fine art market, and the art heritage of Norval Morrisseau and other First Nations artists, and wrongfully defamed the reputations of many fine and decent Canadians, like Randy Potter and Donna Shea.
Without credible, independently verifiable evidence of any kind.
By 2013, numerous paintings from the Potter auctions – all supposedly fakes according to Donald Robinson’s claim – that have been sent to three different top Canadian independent forensic document examiners and handwriting analysis experts, have been found to have been signed, with DNA certainty, by Norval Morrisseau and by no one else.
When, in fact, if what Donald Robinson claimed was true, beginning in 2001, not a single one would ever have passed any scientific test for authenticity.
In a stunning further finding, not a single Morrisseau that originated at a Randy Potter auction – not a single one, of many – has ever failed a test for authenticity carried out by an independent forensics expert.
I couldn’t help but remember what Norval’s most successful art dealer had said about the business he was in “… what the art world is like: scheming, manipulative, and, quite often, downright fraudulent.” (Jack Pollock, “Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess”, 1989)
But I prefer to take my leave thinking warm, affectionate thoughts of two utterly decent, salt of the earth Canadian originals, Randy Potter and Donna Shea, two Great Canadian Cultural Heroes.