TORONTO – A painting that could either be worth millions, or be relatively worthless, is the subject of a court fight involving a retired Canadian correctional officer and a world famous artist who disavows the art work.
The unprecedented battle, set to play out in a Chicago courtroom next month, involves a claim by Robert (Bob) Fletcher, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., that the canvas he owns was painted by Peter Doig in 1976.
Doig, whose works have sold for millions of dollars, argues the acrylic landscape was in fact painted by a Peter Doige, a man who once spent time locked up in Thunder Bay, Ont., for a drug offence. Doige further claims he has never been in the northern Ontario city and only began painting on canvas in 1979, according to his legal filings.
Fletcher’s suit alleges Doig’s disavowal has potentially cost him millions, because auctioneers have refused to put the painting up for sale.
“All we wanted to do is find out if it’s his or not so we could go ahead and sell this painting,” Fletcher, 62, told The Canadian Press. “We are so convinced that we have the right person that we’re going to go ahead with this.”
The origins of the dispute, records show, date back 40 years, when Fletcher worked at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre and also attended classes at Lakehead University. At the school, he met a teenager named Peter Doige, who ended up in jail for possession of LSD and, during art classes at the institution, painted the disputed work: An 86 cm by 105 cm canvas that depicts a desert scene with a pond. It is signed “Pete Doige 76.”
As his parole officer, Fletcher helped Doige find work, and, to help him out, bought the painting for $100.
It was only five years ago, Fletcher said, that a friend noticed the canvas.
“He said, ‘Bob, that guy’s a real famous artist’,” Fletcher said. “He starts showing some videos of (Doig) and I said, ‘I do recognize him’ — even though we didn’t have the long hair we had back then. I said, ‘My God, it is him’.”
Subsequent research turned up “uncanny convergences” between Doig and Doige: Both were born in the 1950s in Scotland; Doig’s family immigrated to Canada when he was a child; and Doig has admitted to having dabbled in LSD as a teen.
“The work has uncanny commonalities in composition and execution with known works by Doig,” the claim, first filed in 2013, further states.
Fletcher and Chicago-based Bartlow Gallery allege Doig and his agents have “wilfully and wrongfully interfered” with their efforts to sell the painting.
The New York Times recently cited Doig, who calls the lawsuit a “scam,” as saying he had seen a photograph of the canvas and thought: “Nice painting. Not by me.”
Doig, 57, who says he splits his time between Trinidad and London, denies ever being in Thunder Bay or in a prison. He says he lived and attended high school in Toronto at the time in question — assertions his parents, brother and friends back in affidavits.
In addition, Doige’s sister Marilyn Bovard, of Hinton, Alta., says she believes her brother, who died in Edmonton in February 2012, was the painter.
“The desert scene appears to be from around the area in Arizona to which our mother moved,” Bovard says in a court filing.
Fletcher’s lawyer, William Zieske, however, is unconvinced.
“Every portion of Mr. Doig’s life is documented in written official documents — from his teen years to his present day — except for an 18-month window (that) comprises almost all of 1976 and the first half of 1977,” Zieske said from Chicago.
The case is unprecedented, Zieske said, in that it’s the first time someone has tried to “impose authorship” of a work on a famous artist, who has then denied the claim.
U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feinerman will hear the case starting Aug. 8.
Fletcher, who admits to losing sleep as the trial date nears, acknowledges he faces the prospect of having to pay court costs and possibly damages if he fails to prove Doig’s authorship.
“There’s a gamble,” he said. “But we are so convinced and positive that we are correct.”