Forty years ago, at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in Ontario, Canada, a young and fairly anonymous inmate completed a painting of a dream-like desert landscape, signing it: “Pete Doige, ’76”.
Robert Fletcher, a prison employee who was friendly with the prisoner, was taken by the painting, and paid $100 for it.
Some fifteen years later, a Scottish-born painter named Peter Doig began to gain notice with a series of startlingly original landscapes, most of which portrayed colder climes from his childhood in Canada.
Then, in the summer of 2011, Doug Fletcher inspected the desert scene on his brother Robert’s wall, and noted the signature in the lower-right-hand corner.
He contacted Peter Bartlow, a local gallerist, who became convinced that Pete Doige the inmate and Peter Doig, Europe’s most expensive living artist, were one and the same.
With its newfound status as a long lost early Doig, the painting was valued at $10 million (£7.6 million), before the artist himself came forward to say he had not painted it.
Thus began a years-long dispute that at times, like the painting in question, bordered on the surreal.
A judge in Chicago ruled on Tuesday that Doig, 57, did not paint it, but even that may not put the matter to rest. Mr Barlow says he and Mr Fletcher are not giving up the fight.
I am absolutely, positively convinced it was him, without any doubt whatsoever. Not one tiny millionth of a part of a doubt. It was him, he told the Telegraph after the verdict.
The number one thing that everybody always asks is, ‘why would he deny it? Why would he deny it if it was his?’ Mr Bartlow continues. That’s what everybody wants to know. The answer to that we may never know, but I have my suspicions.
Mr Bartlow laid out his initial suspicious in October 2011 in a truculent series of emails to Gordon VeneKlasen, an art dealer representing Doig.
Noting that Doig had admitted using LSD in his youth, and spoken little about his life from 1976-1978, Mr Bartlow concocted a theory that he presented to Mr VeneKlasen.
“If by some chance Peter Doig got busted, that would explain why he would have changed the name from Doige to the more common Doig,” he wrote. “A drug record makes things difficult.”
That hypothesis has changed over time. Now, Mr Bartlow contends that Doig denied that the painting was his because he used it as the basis for tracings, a technique he does not want associated with his work.
Mr Bartlow went so far as to present his theories to David Doig, the artist’s father.
“You seem like nice people, and I don’t like what I am doing, but if it is not me it will be someone else,” he wrote in January, 2013. “The problem is that your son’s work has gotten so that our painting could be worth a lot of money if he painted it.”
“You cannot hide this forever,” he warned.
The elder Mr Doig replied that his son had never worked with acrylic, the type of paint used for the desert scene, and had not completed anything as “advanced” as the work in question by 1976, when he was 16 or 17.
“Make a fool of yourself further if you feel you must,” he said.
Matthew Dontzin, Doig’s lawyer, had a less generous attitude, accusing Mr Bartlow of “harassing” his client.
“These plaintiffs shamelessly saw the opportunity in a famous artist with a deep pocket,” he told the Telegraph this week. “They crowdsourced over the internet to raise money with false promises of the evidence they had in the case and they tried to extort Peter’s 80-year-old father, the artist, and the gallery for a settlement.”
Despite Doig’s insistence that the painting was not his, a judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed to trial in 2013.
The trial took an unexpected turn when a Canadian woman named Marilyn Doige Bovard came forward to say that the mysterious artist was in fact her late brother Peter Doige.
A carpenter who dabbled in painting and served time at Thunder Bay, he died in 2012 apparently unaware that his work was at the centre of one of the most dramatic authentication battles in recent art history.
Doig released a statement after the judge ruled in his favour, saying “justice prevailed, but it was 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,” he said.
Mr Bartlow, meanwhile, is still looking for the missing clue that will tie Doig to the painting in his gallery.
The art community didn’t want me to be correct, they wanted Peter Doig. He is like a golden boy, a saint. They love him in Canada, they love him in the UK, they love him everywhere. He’s a great artist. But you know what? He’s not that great a guy, he says.
Asked what will happen to the colourful work that caught Mr Fletcher’s eye forty years ago, the gallerist pauses.
The painting itself, where it ends up? I don’t know.
News Source TelegraphNews