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Two Norval Morrisseau paintings recovered four decades after brazen theft

The paintings – titled Demi-God Figure 1 (right) and Demi-God Figure 2 (left) – were done by Norval Morrisseau and donated to Confederation College in Thunder Bay in the 1970s. (Submitted: Confederation College) The paintings – titled Demi-God Figure 1 (right) and Demi-God Figure 2 (left) – were done by Norval Morrisseau and donated to Confederation College in Thunder Bay in the 1970s. (Submitted: Confederation College)
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More than 40 years ago two brazen art thieves walked into a college in Thunder Bay and stole two Norval Morrisseau works off the wall. Now four decades later – the paintings have found their way back to their rightful owners.

Kathleen Lynch, president of the Confederation College in Thunder Bay, said the two paintings had been donated to the college in the 1970s by the then-campus manager who had known the artist.

The paintings – titled Demi-God Figure 1 and Demi-God Figure 2 – were done by Norval Morrisseau, who according to the Art Canada Institute, is considered to be the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada. Morrisseau died in 2007 at the age of 75.

"Everybody admired the two beautiful paintings by Norval that he had done when he was in Kenora," Lynch said.

However, in 1981, Lynch said two young men walked into the campus in broad daylight and told school staff they had instructions to remove the paintings – each one measuring 150 cm by 100 cm.

"They removed them from the wall, and they took them from the college," she said. "Somebody knew what they were doing because they specifically targeted those two paintings."

For the next four decades, the two paintings were lost to the college – until 2018 when a Toronto-based art curator and dealer contacted the college saying she had found the paintings.

The curator had been contacted by a colleague in Montreal who was looking to sell the two paintings. When she saw them, the curator recognized the paintings as the ones stolen from the Confederation College.

"It's taken this long, but I was determined to get them back, and get them back here to Northwestern Ontario where they belong," Lynch said.

"I am just thrilled that we have been able to accomplish this because it took a long time and a lot of wrangling and a lot of details to be worked out, but they're back home where they belong."

The paintings are now back in Thunder Bay. However, Lynch said they will not be brought back to the college.

"We have decided we should not probably be the host of these beautiful, valuable paintings. We're not set up to manage this," Lynch said, adding instead the paintings will be on display at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery.

In a news release from Confederation College, Sharon Godwin, director of the art gallery, said Morrisseau's work is extraordinarily meaningful to the country's art history and the people of Northwestern Ontario.

"The Thunder Bay Art Gallery is honoured to accept and provide a home for these two works, which are fascinating on their own, but made even more so by the story of their past," Godwin said.

Lynch said the college plans to unveil the paintings at a dinner at Confederation College at the end of March if public health measures allow for in-person events.

-with files from CTV's Charles Lefebvre 

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