One of the most bizarre art authentication cases in recent memory came to a close yesterday with a federal judge’s ruling that Peter Doig did not paint a desert scene signed “Pete Doige 76.” To the great disappointment of its owner, the acrylic painting — a rocky landscape with cacti and a muddy pond — is therefore not worth the tens of millions of dollars that Doig’s mystical compositions have been known to bring in. The ruling followed a four-year legal battle and seven days of convoluted testimony in a Chicago court.
The owner of the painting, former corrections officer Robert Fletcher, presented an elaborate tale in court. He claimed he’d met a teenage Doig doing time for LSD possession in a Canadian detention center in 1976, and that he’d watched the incarcerated artist make the painting. Later, Fletcher claimed, while serving as Doig’s parole officer, he helped the artist find a job and bought the painting for $100. Five years ago, a friend who saw the work on Fletcher’s wall said it was by a famous painter, and Fletcher sent a photograph of the work to Doig.
When Doig denied authorship of the painting and said he’d never been to jail, Fletcher sued the artist. Along with the Chicago art dealer Peter Bartlow, Fletcher alleged that a lying and “malicious” Doig had quashed their plans to sell the work for up to $12 million. Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago had intended to sell the work until Doig advised them it wasn’t his, Fletcher and Bartlow’s gallery claimed in their joint lawsuit against the painter. The plaintiffs sought nearly $8 million in damages and a court declaration that the work was authentic.
“There are so many of defendant Doig’s commonly used techniques and elements in the disputed work that it could be the most typical of all of his works,” Fletcher and Bartlow claimed in court papers. And, they suggested, Doig did drugs as a teen, so he must have been jailed: “Doig has admitted publicly that he used LSD up to the age of 19, and three of his famous paintings, Windowpane, Blotter and Orange Sunshine, bear titles that are street names for varieties of LSD,” the complaint stated.
However, Judge Gary Feinerman of the US District Court of Northern Illinois ultimately ruled that “Peter Doig could not have been the author of this work.” The ruling was based on ample evidence that the painting was by one Peter Edward Doige, another man entirely, who died in 2012, and who had indeed served time at Thunder Bay Correctional Center in Ontario.
To prove that, despite his admitted teenage drug use, he had not been jailed in the 1970s, Doig presented letters from his mother about his role in Romeo and Juliet at his Toronto high school; friends’ written testimony about his skiing trips to Utah; and a high school yearbook. The painter expressed relief at the verdict and frustration at being dragged into a far-fetched money-making scheme that nearly denied him the authority to authenticate his own work.
“Today’s verdict is the long overdue vindication of what I have said from the beginning four years ago: a young talented artist named Pete Edward Doige painted this work, I did not,” Doig, who was born in Britain and grew up in Canada and Trinidad, said in a statement. “That the plaintiffs in this case have shamelessly tried to deny another artist his legacy for money is despicable. The deceased artist’s family and my family and friends have suffered mightily. Thankfully, justice prevailed, but it was way too long in coming. That a living artist has to defend the authorship of his own work should never have come to pass.”
Many in the art world were surprised the case went to trial at all. Most art authentication cases deal with the work of deceased artists.
“Peter and his family have endured an untold amount of stress and public scrutiny as a result of this senseless lawsuit,” Gordon VeneKlasen, co-owner of the Michael Werner Gallery, which represents Doig, said in a statement of his own. “The court has ruled in his favor, although we are deeply disappointed that it has taken so long to do so. It is our hope that this verdict will have at least one good outcome — that artists maintain the unfettered right to authenticate their own work.”
The plaintiffs, however, do not appear convinced by the verdict. “I still think the painting may be authentic,” said William F. Zieske, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who are still deciding whether to appeal.