In a Chicago case involving mistaken identity, LSD, and jail time, artist Peter Doig had to prove he did not paint a landscape.
A federal judge in Chicago was set to issue a verdict last night in a peculiar civil trial over the celebrated Scottish-born artist’s insistence that he did not paint a landscape work which was once valued at more than $10m (€8.8m).
Some of Doig’s paintings have sold for more than $20m, and the owner of the disputed picture, a prison official from Canada, sued in the US court for millions in damages after its projected sales price nosedived after 57-year-old Doig denied it was his work.
The painting’s owner, Robert Fletcher, of Ontario, Canada, maintains that the painting of a desert landscape with giant red rocks and a receding pond, for which he paid $100 in the 1970s, is by Doig.
If it is not, according to one filing by Mr Fletcher’s lawyers, “it is essentially worthless”.
Authenticity disputes typically arise long after an artist dies, not, as in this case, when the artist is still alive and flatly denies a work is his. The oddity of such a dispute making it all the way to trial has drawn the interest of the wider art world.
After a week of hearing evidence, US district judge Gary Feinerman said he would announce his verdict later last night.
The lawsuit was filed in Chicago because one auctioneer who had expressed interest in selling the painting is based there.
Mr Fletcher contends he bought the painting from Doig around 1976 when he says the Scottish artist was serving a jail sentence for possessing LSD in Canada’s Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, where Mr Fletcher was employed.
It was long after he bought it that a friend saw it at his home and said it appeared to be by an internationally acclaimed artist.
Doig said he did not begin using the type of linen canvas the work in question is painted on until late 1979. He also told the court that he had never been imprisoned anywhere else in Canada.
Such a dispute would seem easily resolved with documentation, though Canadian prison and school records from that era were sometimes imprecise, lawyers in the case have said.
A key witness for Doig was a Canadian woman who told the court the painting is actually by her now- deceased brother, whose name was Peter Doige, with an ‘e’, like the signature on the disputed work.
Meanwhile, Mr Fletcher’s lawyers suggest Doig is denying the painting is his work because, if Mr Fletcher is right, it would link him to prison in his youth.
The unusual case is stirring up the art world, and experts say it could set a dangerous standard that would leave artists at risk for costly settlements.
“The specifics of this case are pretty unusual”, said Matthew Biro, a professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Michigan.
“It could definitely set a precedent,” he said, “If Doig loses this case, what would stop other collectors who feel they have found a multi- million-dollar painting to find backing to sue artists to agree to it?”
Amy Whitaker, a professor of art business at New York University, expressed concern about the burden of proof.
“There’s somehow an implication in the lawsuit itself that the artist is responsible for guaranteeing the value” of an artwork That is in no way shape or form the responsibility of the artist, Prof Whitaker said.
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