Department stores, museums and art galleries duped by fake Native sculptor
Until recently, the gift shops of some of British Columbia’s most famous museums and art galleries sold woodcarvings by an artist identified as “Harvey John” for hundreds of dollars each.
According to to the standard biography used by these stores, Harvey John is Nuu-Chah-Nulth from Vancouver Island and learned traditional Northwest Coast carving from an uncle.
But none of this is true. There is no Harvey John, and the person responsible for these sculptures is not aboriginal at all.
Through pointed questions from Indigenous artists, a Fraser Valley art dealer admitted Harvey John is a pseudonym and has been knowingly cheating on buyers across the country and around the world for years.
“It’s really disturbing, just in the sense that someone is projecting such a false identity,” said Curtis Collins, director and chief curator of the Audain Museum of Art in Whistler.
The museum shop recently informed people who purchased Harvey John parts about the deception, letting them know they can get a full refund.
Along with the Audains, the Museum of Anthropology and the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver both confirm that they have removed Harvey John pieces from their stores and cut ties with the supplier.
âWe are dealing with everyone in good faith,â said Sharon Haswell, store manager at the Museum of Anthropology.
“We expect people to be honest in their business dealings. Unfortunately, this was a scam.”
The art dealer in question is Steve Hoffmann, based in Langley.
Hoffmann admitted in a phone interview with CBC News that he intentionally misled people and said he financially reimbursed stores that were duped.
âI’m sorry for this,â he said. “I have a conscience.”
He claimed the pieces are the work of a British Columbia-based sculptor – not overseas as some have suggested online – and said the artist is responsible for the bogus biography. He added that at first he believed the sculptor to be Indigenous, but when he found out the truth he chose to continue with the lie.
âOne way to look at it is that I was helping someone make a living,â Hoffmann said. “But another way of looking at it was that it was a pseudonym. It wasn’t correct.”
Hoffmann did not want to reveal the true identity of the artist, explaining that “I do not want to denounce anyone”.
“I knew instantly”
It was a sloppy description of the fake artist that made the whole plan fail.
Erin Brillon, the Haida / Cree fashion designer behind Totem Design House, noticed a listing from an Alberta art store that described Harvey John’s work as “original Haida sculptures” – not Nuu-Chah-Nulth , as the official biography says.
Brillon posted on his find in a Facebook group devoted to exhibiting fraudulent Aboriginal art.
âI knew straight away that it hadn’t been done by a Haida person. It was by no means designed by the Haida, ârecalls Brillon. âAnd I know John is not a Haida last name.
Her post was quickly inundated with comments from people who shared her suspicions and others who had found stores across the world selling Harvey John artwork.
Eventually, someone tagged a Vancouver business owner who had sold the sculptures. This person confronted Hoffmann, getting him to admit the hoax, and word spread throughout the gallery world of British Columbia.
âA lot of people stepped in and acknowledged that something more important was going on here. I’m really happy that we actually explored the source of the fraudulent art,â Brillon said.
But she stresses that it’s not just about an artist using a pseudonym and a false identity.
False indigenous art is oddly common – right now, members of the Facebook group “Fraudulent Indigenous art on display and more“have been busy observing daily t-shirt vendors rip off native artists to sell” Every Child Counts “merchandise.
Brillon recalls visiting gift shops in Alaska where Northwest Coast-style masks and sculptures are sold to cruise ship passengers, who are told their purchases are “inspired” by Indigenous art rather than by authentic pieces.
âThey sell lots of this stuff to American tourists because, rightfully, people don’t care just wanting a cheap price,â Brillon said.
“It just doesn’t make sense to have artists up there andâ¦ none of these artists are rich, and yet these galleries are selling these fakes hand in hand, causing a killing.”
“There were a lot of people who closed their eyes”
United States has a law that protects Native American art forms and makes the marketing and sale of counterfeit products illegal, with penalties of up to $ 1 million or even five years in prison. Brillon wants Canada to do the same.
But she also believes that museums and art galleries need to be responsible for the products they sell in their gift shops and be more careful to ensure that they are genuinely indigenous.
“The discovery of [Harvey John] should have happened much sooner. I think [were] a lot of people turn a blind eye, âsaid Brillon.
Haswell, the manager of the Museum of Anthropology store, said the experience made her more cautious about the products she sold and that she would likely start asking for face-to-face meetings with artists.
At the Audain Art Museum, Collins said the benefit of the experience is that people are now paying more attention to charlatans.
âFrom our point of view, it’s refreshing because it means that both buyers and dealers need careful consideration to ensure that First Nations art – in this case the design of the line of north-west coast formwork – not mined at all, âhe said.