Doig or didn't he? (ctd.)

August 9 2016

Image of Doig or didn't he? (ctd.)

Picture: NYT

The case against the contemporary artist Peter Doig has reached new levels of ridiculousness. To recap, he is being sued by Robert Fletcher, who says he bought a painting (above) from Doig in the 1970s, when the artist had served time in a Canadian detention centre and Flether had been his parole officer. Doig, however, maintains he didn't paint it, and that he has never been incarcerated. And there's strong evidence the picture was actually made by someone called Peter Doige, with an 'e', and indeed that is what the signature says too. (This Peter Doige is dead.) When Doig was sent the painting for 'approval' so that Fletcher could sell it, and denied it was by him, he was promptly sued for the apparent loss of value.

This is possibly one of the most bizarre artworld court cases I've ever come across. Not least because the lawyer for the owners has said:

“This is not a work painted by someone with no artistry or no artistic talent [...] It is a work of master artistic talent.”

Clearly, it is not (in my opinion). And then we have the curious assertion by one of the co-plaintiffs in the case, an art dealer called Peter Bartlow (who had hoped to sell the work for Fletcher) that the reason Doig is disavowing the painting is because he is not someone with 'master artistic talent'. Bartlow told Artnet News:

Bartlow, who helped bring the case against the artist, told artnet News in a phone interview that he believed Doig’s motive in disavowing the work is not to deny a criminal past but to disguise the fact that “he can’t draw.”

Everybody in the art world thinks he’s telling the truth, and thinks I’m crazy, but people outside of the art world are skeptical… I know why he did it [disavowed the painting]. He did it because he can’t draw. Everything he does is projected, and he sketches it from the picture…This painting we have proves it.

The Chicago dealer insists that Doig relies on using projections on the canvas. “No critic has ever written this about it,” he acknowledged. “The only reason I did is that I have this book of his by Phaidon of the painting in the Canadian National Gallery, and I was looking at it upside down. There’s a couple of shapes in it that are the same shapes located in our painting. I could see what he did.”

Barlow goes on to describe Doig as a “sociopath,” and added that “his paintings play on words for LSD. I think he doesn’t care if anybody knows he got busted for drugs. It’s all about his art.” In his closing remark he said, “I like his work though.”

A 'sociopath'? What has Doig done to deserve this kind of treatment?

The New York Times reports on the early testimony in the case:

The plaintiffs are suing the painter for at least $5 million in damages and, in addition, are seeking a court declaration that the artwork is authentic.

Mr. Doig took the stand on the first day of the trial, called as an adverse witness by the plaintiffs, whose lawyers asked him to go through the minutiae of how he creates art. The plaintiffs contend the work resembles other paintings by Mr. Doig and employs colors he typically uses.

Mr. Doig, dressed in a light gray suit, answered politely through several hours of testimony, describing how he used projections and other tools to help create images. Most of his answers revolved around technical issues, not direct commentary on whether he had created the work.

Asked, for example, to describe how he would create a silk-screen on punk-rock T-shirts, Mr. Doig said, “You slop on varnish and you paint the paint through a screen.” [...]

Mr. Fletcher, who lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Mr. Bartlow have no record of Mr. Doig being jailed in Thunder Bay, but they have focused on what they assert is an incomplete account of his teenage years in Canada, when he cannot fully explain where he was or what he was doing.

Mr. Fletcher testified in the afternoon and said that he remembered Mr. Doig well, partly because, he said, he had known him at Lakehead University and then later when he worked at the detention center.

While at Thunder Bay, Mr. Fletcher recalled watching the person he said was Mr. Doig work on the desert painting over a period of months. “He was almost bragging and said how good he was getting at it (painting),” Mr. Fletcher said.

And his progress as a painter showed in the work, Mr. Fletcher told the court. “The painting stood out,” he said. “I fell in love with it.” [...]

Judge Gary Feinerman of the United States District Court for Northern Illinois decided that there was enough evidence for the case to go to trial and will rule after what is expected to be about a week of testimony.

It would seem pretty clear, the case having got this far, that there is no documentary evidence to support the Doig attribution. Maybe there is, as the plaintiffs allege, a gap in the account of Doig's early life. But that proves nothing - and can any of us document where we were all the time in our teenage years?

Therefore, the case must it seems come down to the connoisseurship of Judge Feinerman - he is being asked to decide, on the evidence of the painting before him and how it was made, whether the canvas is a work by the young Doig. Courts are, as AHN has often warned before, an unsatisfactory place to decide matters of attribution. And in this case (as the line of questioning described above suggests) the court is being asked to judge a piece of juvenalia on the assumption that Doig painted in the 1970s in the same way he does now. It's frankly ridiculous. If Doig wins this case, I hope he is awarded punitive damages, as well as costs.

The wider point here is that the American legal system can put the fear of God into those who would say whether a painting is or is not by a particular artist - even, in this case, the artist themselves. As Doig's case shows, even when there is no direct evidence at all for an attribution, the person who is brave enough to say so can be harrassed by the litigious, and landed with huge legal fees. It's legalised blackmail.

Update - Mariona Manneker of Art Market Monitor says:

One of the things that makes the trial interesting is the previous case law where courts have ruled that authenticity cannot be determined by judge.

In which case I am even more baffled by the whole thing.

Update II - here (with a link to a high-res photo) is the entry for the painting on the Peter Bartlow Gallery website, where it is listed as a work by 'Peter Doig':


34 x 41 1/2 inches

acrylic on linen


Painted and signed as Pete Doige 76

Subject of groundbreaking case before the U.S. court in which the gallery complains that the artist unjustly interfered in the attempted sale of the painting.

'Interfered in the attempted sale'? If someone sends Doig a photo of a painting, and asks 'did you paint this?', and he gives an answer, then how can that be described as 'interfering'?

Update III - The New York Times, here, presents the evidence assembled by Doig's lawyers that the painting is by Peter Doige (above):

Mr. Doig and his lawyers say they have identified the real artist, a man named Peter Edward Doige. He died in 2012, but his sister said he had attended Lakehead University, served time in Thunder Bay and painted.

“I believe that Mr. Fletcher is mistaken and that he actually met my brother, Peter, who I believe did this painting,” the sister, Marilyn Doige Bovard, said in a court declaration. She said the work’s desert scene appeared to show the area in Arizona where her mother moved after a divorce and where her brother spent some time. She recognized, she said, the saguaro cactus in the painting.

The prison’s former art teacher recognized a photograph of Ms. Bovard’s brother as a man who had been in his class and said he had watched him paint the painting, according to the teacher’s affidavit.

But Peter Bartlow, the dealer who is suing Peter Doig along with the painting's owner Robert Fletcher, has posted a bizarre video on YouTube, in which he appears to suggest that the Peter Doige shown in the photo ID above might actually be Peter Doig, the artist. 

Furthermore, in another video on YouTube, Bartlow claims that Doig re-uses the composition from Mr Fletcher's painting, and that it can be seen in later examples of Doig's work. This is proved, Bartlow says, by turning one painting upside down and then super-imposing another picture on top of it at a slightly different angle, and then comparing some of the outlines. It is plainly absurd, fantastical stuff. There are 15 videos from Peter Barlow, here.

If this sort of nonsense is being presented in a US court as a reason to sue Peter Doig, and Judge Feinerman is entertaining it as serious evidence even for one second, then it's a complete scandal. A British judge would have dismissed this case within minutes. As Peter Doig says, 'it's a scam'. Why is a US court allowing this to happen?

Update IV - here's a piece from 2012 in the Chicago Reader, setting out some of the background to Mr Fletcher's interraction with Peter Doige. It also reports that Mr Bartlow attempted first to sell the painting to Doig himself, which is curious. And that when the article was written the picture had been priced by Bartlow at $1m. This was after Doig had denied painting the picture. So if it was only 'valued' at $1m then, how can Fletcher and Bartlow be claiming damages with a value of $5m?

Update V - here's more from Marion Maneker on how US courts view determining authenticity. He cites a decision in a 2009 New York court as saying:

Moreover, because of the procedures and processes by which our civil litigation is decided, courts are not equipped to deliver a meaningful declaration of authenticity. For such a pronouncement to have any validity in the marketplace or the art world, it would have to be supported by the level of justification sufficient to support a pronouncement by a recognized art expert with credentials in the relevant specialty. For example, in the French legal system, declarations of authenticity are reportedly made by courts, but they are based on more than a determination of which side’s expert is the more credible. In addition to the parties’ disputing experts, the French court appoints its own neutral expert who possesses the necessary expertise (see Van Kirk Reeves, Establishing Authenticity in French Law, in The Expert versus the Object, supra at 228). In contrast, in our legal system, courts have neither the education to appropriately weigh the experts’ opinions nor the authority to independently gather all available appropriate information; we can only base our conclusions on the evidence the parties choose to present to us, and our findings as to a party’s entitlement to relief are generally made according to a preponderance of the evidence standard. […]

This is not to say that courts do not address the issue of authenticity. Courts are often required to issue findings as to art works’ authenticity as an element of claims, such as those brought by dissatisfied buyers, seeking money damages from sellers or appraisers, or rescission of art sales. However, in these actions, the relief awarded by the court binds only the parties to the transaction, and does not attempt to affect the art market generally.

I believe this is in effect saying that a court, in the present Doig case, could decide to award damages if it believed in the authenticity of a painting, and that somehow that question of authenticity resulted in a financial loss or gain for a particular party. This is seperate from issuing a declarion, 'this painting is authentic', which a French court is able to do (whether anyone in the art market would pay attention to it is another matter). I would be truly staggered, on the sort of evidence presented so far in the Doig case, if Judge Feinerman was able to even come close to pronouncing the painting authentic. 

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