"Of course, I'm pleased by the verdict," Peter Doig was saying on the telephone the other day from New York. "But it was a horrible thing to go through."
Doig – his voice a transatlantic blend of soft burrs and lilts acquired during a peripatetic youth – was referring to last month's much-publicized trial in Chicago where a former Canadian corrections officer and his agent, a Chicago art dealer, tried – and failed – to get a court order affirming "tortious interference" and declaring a painting owned since the mid-seventies by the now retired officer was, in fact, an authentic Peter Doig.
Described, variously, in the media as "bizarre," "strange," "unorthodox" and "ridiculous," the trial was the culmination of a five-year-plus effort by the owner, Robert Fletcher of Sault Ste. Marie, and the dealer, Peter Bartlow, to pressure and cajole the Scottish-born, Canadian-raised, London-educated, Trinidad-based Doig into admitting he'd painted the acrylic desert landscape with pond at the age of 17 while allegedly serving time for LSD possession at Thunder Bay Correctional Centre.
It was there, Fletcher asserted, he met Doig, served as his parole officer, helped get him a job and bought the painting at issue for $100. Fletcher didn't know the painting was worth any more than that until five or six years ago when, he told interviewers, a friend informed him the artist whose signature was on the canvas was likely Peter Doig.
Doig, at 57 an art-world star for more than a decade whose canvases regularly sell for millions at auction and private sale, vigorously denied the attribution and stoutly resisted all efforts to persuade him otherwise, not least by convincingly demonstrating that he'd never attended university, lived, been arrested or imprisoned in Thunder Bay. And on Aug. 23, following seven days of hearings, District Court Judge Gary Feinerman unequivocally ruled in Doig's favour, declaring the painting in question, untitled but signed "Pete Doige 76" near its bottom-right corner, "could not have been [authored]" by Peter Doig. If there were any similarities between the desert-with-pond scene and a Doig painting – which Bartlow, as the sole art "expert" for the plaintiffs, made what The New York Times called "unorthodox efforts" to demonstrate – such congruences were "purely coincidental," the judge stated.
Today, Doig isn't tipping his hand as to what he and his lawyers might do next. Understandably, he seems wary – and weary – of the courts. "The burden of proof was actually on [the plaintiffs] to prove that I made the painting," he said. "But, at the end of the day, the burden of proof was on me, it seemed, to prove I didn't make it and to prove my whereabouts," contrary to the plaintiffs' conjectures.
"It took up so much time and energy not to mention, of course, money," Doig said, recalling episodes where he'd "be waking up in the middle of the night, trying to remember where you were between, say, November, 1976, and May, 1977." He became, he said, "not just obsessed but sort of paranoid about remembering your time – it was such a long time ago, really – trying to find friends who remembered things. And, of course, back then being the precomputer age made it even more difficult."
Asked what impact the trial and the events leading up to it have had on his art, Doig replied with a laugh: "It hasn't affected the content – yet!" He averred that he's "not good at compartmentalizing," at separating the rigours of his art practice from the vicissitudes of real life. "It's still hard not to think about it."
One element he confessed to "still [being] really puzzled by is why this case ever went to trial in the first place. It was obviously the plaintiff's intention to pigeonhole me … as being the man who made this painting and deny any evidence that we brought forward that I didn't."
Indeed, documents presented in court showed the plaintiffs knew, before the trial and before they filed suit in spring 2013, there was a Peter Edward Doige (as opposed to a Peter Marryat Doig, the famous artist's full name), born in 1955, who did attend Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, was an artist, served time in the Thunder Bay institution at the same time as Fletcher worked there and, after joining the Seafarers' International Union in 1978, died 34 years later in Alberta.
According to Doig, the whole affair "started off in a vaguely friendly way from them" in 2011. "There was an e-mail saying, 'Maybe you'd like to see an oil painting that you gave to an old friend,' I think it was. And then they sent a picture." Doig always has "quite politely" claimed to like the Doige, saying it demonstrates a level of talent "far more accomplished" than what he had at 16 while simultaneously insisting it's not his and could not be his since he didn't paint anything on canvas until 1979.
Doig said he didn't personally respond to the initial overture. "I just did it through the gallery [the Michael Werner Gallery, which has spaces in Manhattan and London]. I just thought there was something funny going on, like, 'Who are these people?' So the gallery said, on my behalf, 'It's not by me.'"
Doig observed that "on quite a number of occasions," he's been asked by auction houses: "'Is this one of yours? We're not sure.' And I'd say either yes or no by looking at the work. And that would be it." Doig expected a similar response – "Okay, sorry, wrong guy" – with respect to his disavowal of the desert landscape. ("Okay, Doig – it's kind of an unusual name," he acknowledged. "But then there are Browns with 'es' on the end of their name. There are people called Smith who spell it Smyth with a y.") However, that didn't happen. Instead, "they got more persistent."
For example, a March, 2012, e-mail to Fletcher from Bartlow, filed in court, floats the possibility that Doig's continued disavowal of the landscape is because, were it revealed he'd done the painting in jail while serving "a felony drug conviction," he'd be subject to travel restrictions. In 2013, in another court-filed e-mail, to Doig's parents in Cobourg, Ont., Bartlow notes "the problem is that your son's work has gotten so valuable that our painting could be worth a lot of money if he painted it."
The e-mail continues: "I know there is something that is hidden that should remain hidden. It does not have to come out. I am very tenacious, and I do not give up . . . We can make a deal and sign a non-disclosure agreement and this thing can go away forever …"
Doig's parents proved to be valuable resources during the trial. His mother maintained a steady correspondence with his grandmother from the mid-1940s onwards, exchanging letters as often as once a week, letters that Mrs. Doig held onto.
Predictably, they contained news about young Doig's activities, such as the time he appeared in a production of Romeo and Juliet in the mid-seventies at Toronto's Jarvis Collegiate. Or his decision in November, 1976, to quit high school to work at the Old Fire Hall theatre (where he was already working part-time). Then, in the spring of 1977, he headed for the oil rigs in Alberta – the years, in other words, when the plaintiffs were placing him in Thunder Bay. And just a few months ago, while attending a memorial service for his father in Cobourg (he'd died in February, 2016), Doig found another trove of helpful letters.
Asked if there's a larger take-away from this case, Doig asserted that there was. While history is strewn with legitimate debates over the authenticity of work by long-dead artists, "a living artist should be the first and last authenticator," he said. "Sometimes, of course, there may be an agenda" – a disputatious ex-lover, "someone the artist had bad dealings with – and they may say, 'I didn't make that work.' But that is so, so rare, I think." Most people, Doig said, would "just take it on the chin and say, 'Yeah, I did do it.'"
Had the decision gone against him, Doig said it would have set a "dangerous," perhaps emboldening precedent. "Someone can say, 'I worked in such and such a restaurant and you did a drawing for me on a napkin.'" Or bring forward "works that haven't been signed that look like a certain artist's work."
Meanwhile, an image of the painting at the heart of the court case was still posted on the Peter Bartlow Gallery website at the time this article was written. It's identified thusly: "Peter Doig (or Doige?)" and in the artist's biography section, there's this sentence: "The painting's origin has been declared by the court, but the mystery deepens."