An unusual art authenticity case has come to an end, pending any future appeal. The US Federal Court in Chicago has ruled that Peter Doig, the renowned Scottish artist, whose paintings have earned millions, did not paint a desert landscape whilst incarcerated in Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in 1976. It appears that after a 3 year long lawsuit common sense and justice has prevailed. The artist, who refused to authenticate the painting when the former corrections officer, Robert Fletcher, and art dealer, Peter Bartlow, tried to sell it, has been vindicated.
Background to the case
The facts of the case date back to the 1970s, when Robert Fletcher claimed he bought the painting of a desert landscape for $100 from a Peter Doige (notably spelt with an extra "e") whilst working at a prison in Ontario, where Doige had been an inmate.
Decades later, a friend saw the painting hanging in Fletcher's home and said it was a work by Peter Doig and could be worth significant amounts (last year, Peter Doig's "Swamped" sold at auction for nearly $26m). Fletcher spoke with a Chicago-based art dealer Peter Bartlow and together they tried to auction the painting. The painting was withdrawn from auction when Doig denied having painted it.
As a result Fletcher and Bartlow sued Doig in 2013 seeking damages of $5m and a declaration that the painting was authentic. Bartlow's expert appraiser valued the painting at $10,000 for its own intrinsic value, but at $6-8 million if Doig accepted it as his own.
The unusual trial had Peter Doig trying to prove that he had not painted the work. The artist's word it seemed was not sufficient for the case to be thrown out.
Doig proceeded to list many reasons why he knew it was not his painting. It was not his signature. The surname had an extra "e". Doig did not make his first canvas painting until 1979 (three years after the painting). Moreover, he had never in his life painted in acrylic, he had never been jailed and he had never met Mr Fletcher.
Furthermore, there was an actual Peter Doige (now dead) who was incarcerated at Thunder Bay at the relevant time and who was an amateur painter. His sister testified about the facts of Doige's life and that she recognised the signature on the painting as her brother's. There was considerably more evidence put before the court proving that both Doig did not paint the work and it was actually by Doige.
A highlight of the trial was Bartlow's unique expert report on authentication (he was unable to find a willing authentication expert). Bartlow isolated shapes from the disputed painting and then found other similar shapes in late Doig works. Bartlow conceded that the earliest existent Doig works did not remotely resemble the disputed painting but explained that away because the painting had been created in the "nurturing womb" of the prison art class.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the verdict went in Doig's favour. In a written statement after the verdict, Doig said of the three-year trial that "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".
Concern for the future
Authenticity disputes are not uncommon in the art world but this case is unusual because Peter Doig was alive and categorically denied ever having made the painting. Whilst it is with relief that the verdict was given in Peter Doig's favour it is still a concern that the case went so far and that Doig was obliged to set about evidencing in multiple ways why the painting was not by him. If this is what is required to show the authenticity (or lack thereof) of a work when the living artist themselves is involved and there are multiple eyewitnesses, then consider much harder is it to prove the authenticity (or lack thereof) of a work over 100 years old with significantly less evidence.
With art becoming ever increasingly an investment and a work’s authenticity having such impact on its value, it is fair to say there will be plenty more authenticity disputes ahead but perhaps none as strange as the Doig that wasn't.