US judge sides with artist forced to prove painting is not his

Attorney William Zieske (left) and his client Robert Fletcher (right) speak to reporters at the US federal courthouse in Chicago on August 23, 2016, after losing their lawsuit against artist Peter Doig

Chicago (AFP) – In a court case with repercussions for the art world and millions of dollars at stake, a US judge ruled Tuesday in favor of an artist who was sued for denying a painting was his.

A US District Court judge in Chicago decided that Peter Doig, a world-famous artist who insists he did not create a desert landscape painting, is telling the truth.

The man who owns the disputed piece of art, a retired Canadian corrections officer by the name of Robert Fletcher, sued Doig for refusing to acknowledge that the painting is one of his works — which means its value is significantly diminished.

Judge Gary Feinerman ruled that there was “conclusive” evidence that Doig did not paint the disputed work, and that he had the right to say a painting was not his.

The facts surrounding the case date back to Canada in the 1970s, when Fletcher met a man named Peter Doige — spelled with an e — and watched him study art while jailed for a drug offense. 

Fletcher says he remembers being impressed by one of Doige’s paintings of a desert landscape in golden hues — an acrylic painting on linen. He bought it for $100 in the hopes of keeping Doige from going back to selling drugs.  

Decades later, a friend saw the painting hanging in Fletcher’s home and said it was in fact the work of Peter Doig, whose creations can command $10 million at auction.  

Fletcher spoke with Chicago-based art dealer Peter Bartlow, who agreed to sell the work.

But Doig denied every element of Fletcher’s story — painting the work, meeting Fletcher or being incarcerated in Canada. 

Doig’s lawyers pointed to a Canadian man named Peter Doige, who was a carpenter and amateur painter. He died in 2012 but his life story seemed to closely match the circumstances surrounding the painting’s creation.

Feinerman concluded that “an artist is well within his rights to ensure that works that he did not create are not sold or offered under his name. The artist has a right to protect his reputation.”

Fletcher and Bartlow said they did not know yet whether they would appeal their case, but they remain convinced that their painting is a Doig.  

– ‘Relieved’ by decision –

Those in the art world have raised concerns that the case could be a green light for wealthy patrons to sue artists if they disavow a work or — as has happened in the past — disown a work that they had previously acknowledged creating. 

“I’m relieved to see the judge’s decision in this case,” Amy Whitaker, professor of art business at New York University, told AFP. “It is not the job of artists to guarantee or authenticate their work.” 

But the damage may have already been done, because the lawsuit was allowed to proceed to trial, said Michael Bennett, a professor at Arizona State University and a previous legal advisor to arts organizations.  

“In the future, top tier artists may be extorted into authenticating a work they did not create,” Bennett told AFP. “The threat of a suit, and all the time, stress and money that’s called for to win one, can be just that strong.” 

Fletcher’s attorney William Zieske dismissed such concerns as “apocalyptic,” saying the case was not precedent-setting, because a 1990 law already protects artists.  

Known as the Visual Artists Rights Act, the US law allows artists to claim ownership of a painting or prevent their name from being associated with a work they did not create. But it mostly protects works made in 1990 or later, and only some works from years prior.  

“This painting is an oddball case. It’s from the 1970s,” Zieske said.  


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