The Chicago federal judge Gary Feinerman ruled on Tuesday that the artist Peter Doig “absolutely did not paint the disputed work” at the centre of a long-running lawsuit.
The suit was brought by the retired Canadian prison officer Robert Fletcher, who claimed a painting he bought in the 1970s from an inmate at Thunder Bay Correctional Center for $100 was made by a young Doig. The artist denies he painted the desert landscape, and Fletcher sued him in 2013, saying his disavowal negatively affected the value of the work, which Fletcher had wanted to sell at auction. Fletcher wanted the court to authenticate the painting as Doig's work and for the artist to pay $7.9m in damages for scuttling the sale.
Feinerman’s ruling was not unexpected: the work in question was signed and dated “Peter Doige, 76” by a man who, according to the artist Doig’s lawyers, died in 2012. In 1976, Peter Doig was 16 or 17 years old and living with his parents in Toronto. Explaining his decision, Feinerman said this was clearly a case of mistaken identity.
The ruling brings the painting’s value back to nil. Doig’s work in the past has sold for as much as $26m at auction.
“I have rarely seen such a flagrant example of unethical conduct in the US courts nor a case that inflicted such needless burdens on a defendant,” Matthew S. Dontzin, the lawyer for Doig and his gallerist Michael Werner said in a statement. “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.”
Doig was also pleased with the results. “Thankfully, justice prevailed, but it was way too long in coming,” he said in a statement. “That a living artist has to defend the authorship of his own work should never have come to pass.”
“It is our hope that this verdict will have at least one good outcome,” Michael Werner co-owner Gordon VeneKlasen said in the statement, “that artists maintain the unfettered right to authenticate their own work.”
In an interview Wednesday, William Zieske, Fletcher's lawyer, said that he was very surprised by the extreme nature of the decision and that his client was “considering” an appeal, but added that “obviously my clients are of very limited means.”
Zieske also registered extreme dissatisfaction with the verdict and the conduct of Doig’s lawyers, saying “they were uncivil throughout the entire case.” One of his main complaints was the late revelation of documents cited extensively in the judge's decision that accounted for Doig's whereabouts in the years the painting was dated, which were only revealed on the second day of the trial. Had the evidence been provided sooner, his clients, Zieske said, may not have continued with their case. “All of it was provided in the 12th hour, not the 11th hour,” he said. He added that all this, he suspects, was done for the sake of legal fees. “Frankly, if I was Mr Doig, I’d be suing my lawyers,” he said. (On this matter, Dontzin declined to comment.)
Correction: An earlier version of this story said William Zieske was unavailable for comment, but he had not yet been approached.