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A ‘$10 million painting’ just became worthless thanks to court decision

The landscape that a judge ruled was not painted by Peter Doig. (Bartlow Gallery via AP)

Peter Doig is adamant that the landscape — a desert, its perspective oddly warped — was neither a product of his brush or the LSD he took.

But Robert Fletcher, who had owned the painting since buying it for $100 in 1976, is equally adamant it had been painted by Doig. Except back then, Doig was a wayward teenager named “Pete Doige,” not yet a world-famous artist whose dreamlike works regularly broke records at the auction house. (In 2015, one of Doig’s paintings, a hallucinatory lagoon scene, went for $26 million at Christie’s. That sale made the Edinburgh-born master the “most valuable living British artist,” as Canada’s the Globe and Mail put it at the time.)

For years, Fletcher said he was not familiar with the Scottish master. Nor did he think the desert painting was Doig’s work. In the summer of 2011, Fletcher and his brother Doug found themselves discussing the landscape as it hung over Fletcher’s couch. A friend, as Chicago Reader described it in 2012, had recently told Fletcher that an artist, “Pete Doige,” was famous. The brothers did a bit of investigative Internet searching and were struck by apparent similarities between Peter Doig’s work and the $100 landscape on Fletcher’s wall.

Some of the details seemed to align with Doig’s life story, too. In the 1970s, Fletcher had worked as a corrections officer in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He bought the painting from a teen, Pete Doige, who ended up serving five months out of a year-long sentence for possessing LSD.

Doig is Scottish by birth, but he moved to Canada in the mid-1960s. He has also admitted to casual LSD use as a teen. Although Doig told the Guardian he was not a “total acid head like some of my friends,” the name of his 1993 breakthrough piece, Blotter, refers to the drug.

When the young inmate named Peter showed artistic inclinations, Fletcher said he was supportive. “I said, ‘That painting you did inside, that desert scene, I absolutely love it,’ ” he recalled recently to NPR. “He said, ‘Would you give me $100 for it?’ ” Fletcher paid up.

He could not have imagined that, more than three decades later, it might be worth millions. But watching videos of Doig — particularly the hand motions and body language — seemed to stir old memories, as Fletcher told NPR. The former corrections officer grew convinced he had something big. Doug called up the Art Institute of Chicago, which in turn linked the brother Fletcher with Peter Bartlow, who owns a Chicago gallery. Bartlow, too, believed it to be Doig’s.

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But there were plenty of areas where the puzzle Fletcher was trying to piece together did not quite fit. As Doig tells it, he grew up in Toronto, hundreds of miles from Thunder Bay. He had never served time or been arrested. He did not become a painter until later in life — 1979. His signature was incorrectly spelled.

When Barlow and Fletcher called up Doig’s representatives, hoping to get the painting authenticated, the response was curt. Fletcher claimed that Gordon VeneKlasen, a New York art dealer writing on behalf of Doig, emailed to say, “The painting is NOT by Peter Doig. Anyone can see that. We are not interested in any further communication related to this. Good luck in finding the real artist for this. Any attempt to attribute this painting to Peter Doig in any way will be dealt with by our attorneys,” according the 2013 complaint republished in part by Courthouse News.

By 2013, the debate over the painting’s authorship turned litigious. Fletcher sued Doig in a U.S. court for denying he had painted the desert. If it was a Doig landscape, after all, it would be worth a significant sum — according to one valuation, before Doig’s public denial, around $10 million. In the lawsuit, Bartlow and Fletcher sought some $7 million in damages.

Bartlow testified as an expert witness that the desert was Doig’s, and in an interview with Artnet called the painter a “sociopath” denying creatorship. It was not a matter of money or admitting to drugs. Doig did not want to own up to the painting, in Bartlow’s view, because to trained eyes the landscape showed signs of subpar work.

Doig backed away from the desert painting “because he can’t draw,” Bartlow said.

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The case went to federal court in Illinois in August. Throughout that time, Doig did not budge. “This case is a scam, and I’m being forced to jump through hoops to prove my whereabouts over 40 years ago,” he told Scotland’s the Herald in July. Among the evidence presented to show Doig was not imprisoned in 1976 were yearbook photos and correspondence written by his mother at the time.

On Tuesday, Gary Feinerman, a U.S. district judge, ruled from the bench that the artist could not have painted the desert, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. The maternal letters, which described Doig acting in a high school production of “Romeo and Juliet,” were especially convincing.

“Those letters are unimpeachable,” the judge declared. “They are unvarnished reportage.”