In a bizarre trial, a judge rules in favor of famous artist Peter Doig


Peter Doig
  • Peter Doig

After seven days of testimony and a week's breather from a trial as surreal as the artwork at its center, international art star Peter Doig has won a resounding victory.

A U.S. district court judge ruled on Tuesday that Doig did not paint the desert landscape a former corrections officer claimed to have purchased from him 40 years ago for $100 (after watching him create it in a Canadian prison).

Judge Gary S. Feinerman found in favor of Doig on both counts of a $7.9 million civil lawsuit brought by the corrections officer, Robert Fletcher, and Chicago gallerist Peter Bartlow.

The lawsuit alleged that Doig had interfered with Fletcher and Bartlow's "economic advantage" by refusing to own up to the painting. They sought costs, damages of $7.9 million, and the right to sell the painting as a Doig work.

According to expert testimony during the trial, if Doig said he had painted the work then it could be sold for somewhere in the range of $6 million to $8 million. Last year a larger Doig work went for $25.9 million.

Doig denied all along that he had created the painting.

Though courtroom attendance was sparse, the trial attracted attention in the art world. Authentication of a work of art can be a puzzle for experts if the purported artist is dead. Prior to this case, however, if the artist was still alive, it was usually a pretty simple matter. All you had to do was ask. If he or she said "no," end of the story.

But Doig said "no" to Bartlow four years ago (and many times since), and now a judge was deciding. It looked like the case could set a precedent that would rob any artist of control over his or her own oeuvre, and open the way for other lawsuits over disowned or imposter art.

And this "imposter" wasn't particularly convincing.

The painting Fletcher bought is an eerily realistic, delicately detailed southwestern scene: an expanse of dry brown earth with sky, mountains, red rocks, and green saguaro. It looks more like a Dali´ than a Doig, whose work is typically looser, starker, flatter, more abstract, and darkly expressive.

And then there was the matter of the signature: '76, Pete Doige. With an "e" on the end.

Bartlow—who didn't know Doig's work before Fletcher contacted him—not only found similarities between the desert scene and Doig's acknowledged paintings but argued that this one provides a seminal pattern that the artist used repeatedly ever after. 

1976 acrylic painting by Pete Doige
  • 1976 acrylic painting by Pete Doige

To prove this, he invented what Doig's lawyers derisively labeled the "Bartlow Method." It consists of superimposing a transparency of known Doig works over the desert scene, turning it one way or another to reveal that a shape here or line there matches up in approximate form and placement.

During a blistering cross-examination by Doig attorney Tibor Nagy (one member of Doig's sizable defense team from the New York firm of Dontzin, Nagy & Fleeing working with Chicago's Agrawal Evans), Bartlow attempted to show, for example, that a cactus edge in the disputed painting was used to make the line of a human arm in one Doig painting, while a faint U-shaped stain around a lion's paw in the background of another Doig work had been lifted from the bank of a watering hole in the foreground of the desert scene.

In both instances, Nagy was able to produce much more convincing sources: actual photos of a human and a lion Doig had projected onto his canvas. To top it off, Nagy demonstrated that he could get a match between the disputed painting and the Mona Lisa or a Magritte.

Nagy took Bartlow to task for everything from touching the painting with his bare hands and transporting it to court in a cardboard box to sending threatening e-mails to Doig's father and borrowing $50,000 from a widow to pursue this case. (The widow, who was in the courtroom to monitor the proceedings every day, turned out to be a former corporate executive who's made a standing offer of $100,000 to buy the painting, no matter the outcome of the trial.)

The defense's art expert, University of Texas professor Richard Shiff, who has written extensively about Doig, testified that Bartlow's methods are "entirely unreliable," and that "Mr. Doig did not paint the disputed work."

Doig himself, bald, with deep-set eyes, testified that he'd never been in the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre where the painting was made, nor in any prison, though he'd once been arrested for stealing a sweater in London, when he was broke and cold. He kept a surface calm through some testy moments with the plaintiffs' solo attorney, William Zeiske, who wielded his deep, resonant voice like a weapon.

Doig said it would be despicable to put his name on another, and less fortunate, artist's work; he felt threatened and bullied but was "not going to create my own forgery." His mom testified that at the time Fletcher saw the painting taking shape in Thunder Bay prison, her son was a teenager, living at home in Toronto.

The defense also produced the sister and the onetime live-in girlfriend of a man named Peter Doige, who died in 2012. They said he painted, attended college in Thunder Bay in the 1970s, had an alcohol problem, and told each of them he'd done time in prison. They both said the painting looked like his work, and the sister, Marilyn Bovard, wept. Another defense witness, Ernie Adams, testified that he was the Correctional Centre art teacher in 1976, and that he recognized the desert painting. It was made by one of his inmate students, a young man named Pete Doige, and not the Peter Doig who was present in the courtroom.

In a surprisingly personal closing statement, Zeiske said he took this case because his mother was an artist and he understands the artistic temperament. He argued that the records for Pete Doige are confusing, evidence had been cherry-picked and, in response to a question from the judge, that even if Doig were found not to have made the painting, his strident interference with the plaintiffs' attempt to sell it should still entitle them to damages.

Nagy closed by saying Peter Doig's motive in denying this painting "is very simple: he didn't paint the work."

The judge agreed: the evidence, he said, was "clear and convincing."

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