Painter awarded $2.5 million in dispute over work he denied

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Painter awarded $2.5 million in dispute over work he denied
A 40-year-old painting whose provenance lay at the center of one of the stranger art authentication cases in recent history, in Chicago, June 30, 2016. The owner of a painting and a gallery had sued Peter Doig, insisting he falsely denied creating the work but a federal judge ordered sanctions after ruling there was no evidence of that. (Whitten Sabbatini/The New York Times)

by Graham Bowley

NEW YORK, NY.- Artist Peter Doig, who fought efforts by a former corrections officer and a gallery to attribute a painting to him — even going so far as to sue him when he denied painting it — has won a $2.5 million judgment against those parties and their former lawyer.

Judge Gary Feinerman of the U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois ruled in the artist’s favor last month in an unusual case in which Doig had been accused of disowning a landscape that the corrections officer and the gallery had hoped to sell.

Feinerman had previously ruled in Doig’s favor in the case in 2016, finding that the artist had not painted the work, after which the artist sought sanctions. In his Dec. 30 ruling, Feinerman supported the sanctions because he said the parties pursued the case against Doig even when “it should have been absolutely clear to them that their claims were factually meritless and stood no chance of success.”

The ruling comes in one of the stranger art authentication cases, one that had pitted Doig, a well-known artist whose works routinely sell for many millions of dollars, against the former corrections officer, Robert Fletcher, who sued in 2013 on grounds that a painting he owned, an untitled acrylic on canvas of a rocky desert scene, signed “Pete Doige 76,” was an early work by Doig.

Fletcher said he had met Doig in the 1970s at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. He said they met again in the prison where he worked and where he said Doig made the work, which he later bought for $100.

Fletcher and Peter Bartlow, a Chicago art dealer who agreed to help sell the painting, argued that Doig was denying authorship because of a vendetta against Fletcher.

But Doig testified that he had never attended Lakehead and had never been incarcerated. Instead, he and his lawyers said the work in question had been painted by another man, Peter Edward Doige, who died in 2012 and had been an inmate at Fletcher’s prison.

A lawyer for Doig, Matthew S. Dontzin, said in a statement that Doig would donate any share of the money he received from the ruling to a nonprofit that gives incarcerated people opportunities to make art.

“We are relieved to finally bring this absurd case to a just conclusion,” Dontzin said in the statement.

Fletcher could not be reached for comment. In a telephone interview, the former lawyer for Fletcher and the gallery, William F. Zieske, noted that Feinerman had allowed the case to proceed to trial and insisted that he and his former clients “certainly operated completely ethically and with a full good-faith basis.”

He criticized the long delay in the sanctions decision and said he would seek reconsideration from another judge in the same court, and could then appeal to a higher court. He said the decision against him “will chill the inclination of lawyers to take on cases like this against those who have literally unlimited means at their disposal.”

In a telephone interview, Bartlow said he still believed that the evidence would ultimately show that Doig had created the painting. He said he was considering an appeal “or other options.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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