Many of us have heard of art historians debating whether a new-found painting was created by a certain artist, but it’s much more rare to hear of such a debate over a painting allegedly created by an artist who’s still living. Even more rare is the owner of a painting suing the artist he claims painted it, but that’s exactly what Robert Fletcher, a 62-year-old retired corrections officer, is doing.
Fletcher was working in a correctional facility in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1975 when he met a young man named Peter Doige who was from Scotland and was taking classes at a local college. Doige was brought to the prison farm Fletcher worked at on an LSD charge, and Fletcher says he saw Doige creating a painting of a rocky desert scene using acrylic and canvas and offered to buy it from him.
Fletcher became Doige’s parole officer and helped him get a job once he had finished serving his time. A few years ago, a friend of Fletcher’s noticed the painting on his wall and told him it was by a famous painter by the name of Peter Doig. Fletcher looked him up online and watched a video of Doig doing a speaking event, and Fletcher said he recognized the mannerisms and facial expressions as belonging to the man he helped forty years ago.
Fletcher then consigned the painting to an art gallery in Chicago, which in turn contacted an auctioneer to help sell the painting.
There’s just one problem: Peter Doig claims he never created the painting in question and that he was never in Thunder Bay, Ontario in the 1970s.
For many people, the artist’s word would be enough, but Fletcher and Peter Bartlow, who runs the Chicago gallery the painting was consigned to, think Doig is either lying or doesn’t remember creating the painting in question. Both men argue the painting bears many similarities to other landscapes Doig has unquestionably painted, including logs protruding from a lake, a horizontal striped landscape, and white lichen on the trees.
Although Doig is also from Scotland, grew up in Canada, and does not deny having used recreational drugs, he said he has never been to Thunder Bay and that in 1976 he was only 16 or 17 and was living in Toronto. He also says he has never been jailed and he denies any similarities the painting might have to his own works. According to Doig, he did not start painting on canvas until 1979 and has never used acrylic paint on canvas.
Fletcher and Bartlow have filed claims against Doig in a Chicago federal court for damages amounting to at least $5 million, which is no doubt the least Doig can expect to pay if the court rules against him. Doig’s paintings regularly go for more than $10 million at auction and some have gone for more than $25 million. If Doig continues to deny having created the painting in question, the plan Fletcher and Bartlow had to sell the painting for millions will go up in smoke. Even if the court rules in their favor, the mere fact of Doig ever having denied the painting as his could drastically reduce the price.
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