Artist Peter Doig Says He Didn't Paint This, And A Judge Agrees

Aug 23, 2016
Originally published on August 23, 2016 5:15 pm

Updated at 6 p.m. with judge's ruling

Usually when there's a question about who created a piece of art, the artist is dead and can't speak for himself — he can't say, "Hey, I made that," or "Nope, not mine." But this is a story about a living artist who went to court to prove that a painting in fact is not his. And on Tuesday, a judge in Chicago agreed.

The painting in question is a desert landscape. There's blue sky at the top, red rocks and green cacti. It's owned by Robert Fletcher, a 62-year-old former corrections officer living in the Canadian city of Sault Ste. Marie. Here's how Fletcher says he got the painting: In 1976, he was working in Ontario's Thunder Bay Correctional Centre when he hit it off with an inmate named Peter Doige, who was in for LSD possession. Doige was going through some rough times, but he had this painting he had made in art class.

"I said, 'That painting you did inside, that desert scene, I absolutely love it,' " Fletcher remembers. "He said, 'Would you give me $100 for it?' " Fletcher said yes.

A couple of decades later, a buddy of Fletcher's is over at his house and sees the painting. He tells Fletcher that it's by a famous artist — Peter Doig. They look him up online and Fletcher recognizes him. "We watched some videos online of him being interviewed and the first thing I remember noticing is his body language — you know, some facial expressions and his use of his hands," Fletcher says.

Peter Doig is a pretty famous artist — last year, one of his paintings sold at auction for nearly $26 million. So Fletcher tried to sell his painting. That's when representatives for Doig came back and said the painting wasn't a Doig. Not only that, but Peter Doig doesn't know Robert Fletcher. And while he did do LSD in the '70s, Doig's representatives say he was never in jail.

For most people, that would be the end of it, but Fletcher and the owner of the gallery he hired to sell the painting were so convinced it was a Doig that they lawyered up and went to court.

Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento has worked in art law for over a decade. He says, "It's odd in the sense that this is the first time that I'm aware of that an artist is being asked to testify that a work of art was not made by him. ... Even if you're alive, how do we say this is a work by you and this is not a work by you?"

Here's another complication: The signature on the painting in question spells the artist's last name Doige, with an e, but the famous artist spells his name with no e. And there was a Peter Doige in the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in the 1970s. According to his sister, he was fond of art and music and liked to paint. Doige died in 2012.

After Tuesday's ruling, Doig's lawyer, Matthew Dontzin, released a statement that said, "I have rarely seen such a flagrant example of unethical conduct in the U.S. courts nor a case that inflicted such needless burdens on a defendant. Artists should be grateful to Peter for having the ethical and financial fortitude to fight tirelessly to ensure that justice prevailed in today's verdict."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, usually when there's a question about who created a piece of art, the artist is dead and can't speak up to say, hey, I made that or, no, not mine. NPR's Andrew Limbong has the story about one artist who is alive and in court trying to do that.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The painting in question is a desert landscape. There's blue sky at the top, red rocks and green cacti. It's owned by Robert Fletcher.

ROBERT FLETCHER: I'm 62. I live in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in Canada. I was a correctional officer for nearly 36 years.

LIMBONG: Here's how Fletcher says he got the painting. It was 1976. He was working in the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in Ontario, and there was a guy there he liked named Peter Doige in for LSD possession. Doige was going through some rough times, but he had this painting he'd made in art class.

FLETCHER: I said that painting you did inside that desert scene, I absolutely love it. You know, he said would you give me a hundred dollars for it?

LIMBONG: Fletcher said yes. Fast forward a couple of decades, a buddy of Fletcher's is over his house and says, hey, that painting you got over there, it's by a famous artist, Peter Doig. They looked him up, and Fletcher recognized him.

FLETCHER: We watched some videos online of him being interviewed, and first thing I remember noticing was his body language, you know, some facial expressions and his use of his hands.

LIMBONG: Peter Doig is a pretty famous artist. Last year, one of his paintings sold at auction for nearly $26 million dollars. So Robert Fletcher tried to sell his painting. That's when representatives for Doig came back saying, no, not his. Peter Doig doesn't know Robert Fletcher. Good luck finding the real artist.

Peter Doig's lawyers didn't want to talk to us for this story. Anyway, for most people, that would be the end of it. But Fletcher and the gallerist he hired to sell the painting were so convinced that it was a Doig, they lawyered up and went to court.

SERGIO MUNOZ SARMIENTO: It's odd in the sense that this is the first time that I'm aware of that an artist is being asked to testify that a work of art was not made by him.

LIMBONG: That's Sergio Munoz Sarmiento He's worked in art law for over a decade.

SARMIENTO: I think this case will make lawyers, like myself, advise their clients. Now this is something we're going to have to contend with. Even if you're alive, how do we say this is a work by you and this is not a work by you?

LIMBONG: On top of that, to quote the court documents, the plot has since thickened. The famous artist Peter Doig spells his name D-O-I-G. In the painting, the signature has an E at the end. There was a Peter Doige with an E in the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in the '70s. According to his sister, he was fond of art and music and liked to paint.

So seems like that guy must have painted it, right? But there aren't a lot of records available from back then, and he died in 2012. The records we do have indicate the two men actually look alike. After all of this, I asked Fletcher if he even still liked the painting with all the stress over it.

FLETCHER: Well, sir, I worked in corrections for 36 years. We never - it was as stressful as it comes, so we learned to cope.

LIMBONG: The judge is expected to deliver his verdict this afternoon. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.