Judge backs Edinburgh-born artist in painting row

An American judge has ruled that a celebrated Scottish artist was right when he insisted he did not paint a work now owned by a retired prison worker.
Edinburgh born artist Peter Doig. Picture: Jane BarlowEdinburgh born artist Peter Doig. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh born artist Peter Doig. Picture: Jane Barlow

The ruling came at the end of a unique bench trial in Chicago that pitted Scottish-born Peter Doig against Canadian Robert Fletcher, who paid just $100 in the 1970s for the desert landscape painting and had hoped for a windfall of millions of dollars in retirement.

Authenticity disputes typically arise after an artist dies, not when the artist is still living and flatly denies a work is his. The oddity of such a dispute created a stir in the art world, where the principle is widely accepted that an artist’s word on whether a work is theirs or not is final.

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The presiding judge in the case, Gary Feinerman, spent nearly two hours explaining his decision and going through evidence, from high school yearbooks to prison records, all of which demonstrated, he said, that Doig “absolutely did not paint the work in question”.

The trial stemmed from a lawsuit filed in US court by Fletcher, in which he sought millions in damages after the painting’s projected sale price tanked following Doig’s disavowal of it.

The evidence, the judge said, showed this was a case of imperfect memories, coincidences and ultimately mistaken identity. He said it was a different Peter Doige – who spelled his last name with an “e” – who actually created the artwork. Feinerman rejected the idea that Doig, the renowned artist, and Doige were the same person.

Fletcher had testified that he bought the painting of a desert landscape while Doig was serving prison time in Canada’s Thunder Bay Correctional Center. But Feinerman said it was Doige – who was several years older and dabbled in painting at the time – who was briefly in prison.

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After Tuesday’s decision, when a reporter asked Fletcher if he’s still convinced the man he bought the painting from in prison and the internationally acclaimed artist are one and the same, he responded: “I am.”

Doig, who now lives in Trinidad, said he has never been imprisoned in Ontario or anywhere else. And while he lived in Canada at the time, he said he was attending school over 500 miles away in Toronto. Doig’s painting “Swamped” sold last year at Christie’s for $25.9 million.