Until recently, gift shops in some of B.C.’s most famous museums and art galleries have sold wood carvings by an artist identified as “Harvey John” for hundreds of dollars a piece.
According to the standard biography used by these shops, Harvey John is Nuu-Chah-Nulth from Vancouver Island, and learned traditional Northwest Coast formline carving from an uncle.
But none of that is true. There is no Harvey John, and the person responsible for these carvings is not Indigenous at all.
Thanks to some pointed questions from Indigenous artists, an art dealer from the Fraser Valley has admitted that Harvey John is a pseudonym and that he’s been knowingly deceiving buyers across the country and around the world for years.
“It’s really troubling, just in the sense that someone would project such a false identity,” said Curtis Collins, director and chief curator of Whistler’s Audain Art Museum.
The museum’s shop recently notified people who’ve purchased Harvey John pieces about the deceit, letting them know they can get a full refund.
Along with the Audain, the Museum of Anthropology and the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver both confirm they’ve removed Harvey John pieces from their shops and cut ties with the supplier.
“We deal with everybody in good faith,” the Museum of Anthropology’s shop manager Sharon Haswell said.
“We are expecting people to be truthful in their business dealings. Unfortunately, this was a scam.”
The art dealer in question is Steve Hoffmann, who is based in Langley.
Hoffmann admitted in a phone interview with CBC that he intentionally misled people, and said he’s made financial restitution to shops that were duped.
“I’m sorry for it,” he said. “I’ve got a conscience.”
He claimed the pieces are the work of one carver based in B.C. — not overseas as some have suggested online — and said the artist is responsible for the phoney biography. He added that in the beginning he believed the carver was Indigenous, but when he discovered the truth he chose to continue with the lie.
“One way to look at it is, I was helping somebody make a living,” Hoffmann said. “But another way to look at it was that it was a pseudonym. It was not accurate.”
Hoffmann would not reveal the artist’s true identity, explaining that “I don’t want to be ratting out anybody.”
‘I knew instantly’
Fittingly, it was a sloppy description of the fake artist that caused the whole scheme to unravel.
Erin Brillon, the Haida/Cree fashion designer behind Totem Design House, noticed a listing from an Alberta art shop that described Harvey John’s work as “original Haida carvings” — not Nuu-Chah-Nulth, as the official biography says.
“I knew instantly it was not done by a Haida person. It was not Haida-designed in any way, shape or form,” Brillon recalled. “And I know that John is not a Haida last name.”
Her post was soon inundated with comments from people who shared her suspicions and others who’d found shops around the world that were selling Harvey John artworks.
Eventually, someone tagged a Vancouver business owner who’d sold the carvings. That person confronted Hoffmann, getting him to admit the hoax, and the news spread through the B.C. gallery world.
“A whole lot of people stepped in and recognized that something bigger was going on here. I’m really glad that we actually got to the bottom of the source of fraudulent art,” Brillon said.
But she points out that this isn’t just about one artist using a pseudonym and a phoney identity.
Fake Indigenous art is disturbingly common — right now, members of the Facebook group “Fraudulent Native Art Exposed and More” have been occupied with daily sightings of T-shirt sellers ripping off Indigenous artists to sell “every child matters” merchandise.
Brillon recalls visiting gift shops in Alaska where knockoff Northwest Coast-style masks and carvings are sold to cruise ship passengers, who are informed that their purchases are “inspired by” Indigenous art rather than authentic pieces.
“They sell loads of this stuff to American tourists because legitimately, people don’t care if they just want a cheap price,” Brillon said.
“It’s insane to have artists up there and … none of these artists are wealthy, and yet these galleries are selling these knockoff pieces hand over fist, making a killing.”
‘There was a lot of people turning a blind eye’
The U.S. does have a law that protects Native American artforms and makes it illegal to market and sell fake products, with penalties that can be as high as $1 million or even five years in prison. Brillon wants to see Canada do the same.
But she also thinks museums and art galleries need to be accountable for the products they sell in their gift shops and take more care in making sure they’re authentically Indigenous.
“The uncovering of [Harvey John] should have happened a lot sooner. I think there was a lot of people turning a blind eye,” Brillon said.
Haswell, the shop manager at the Museum of Anthropology, said this experience has made her more cautious about the products she sells, and she will likely begin requesting face-to-face meetings with artists.
At the Audain Art Museum, Collins said the upside to this experience is that people are now paying more attention to charlatans.
“From our perspective, that’s refreshing because it means that both buyers and dealers need heightened scrutiny to ensure that First Nations art — in this case, Northwest Coast formline design — is not being exploited at all,” he said.