The signature on the jaunty, vaguely surrealistic desert landscape you see above reads “Pete Doige 76.” That’s two letters and two digits removed from the name of Peter Doig, one of the world’s most renowned and successful living painters. Are Doig and Doige one and the same? That’s the $5 million question.
A retired Canadian corrections officer named Robert Fletcher says that he bought the above painting for $100 dollars in the mid 1970s, from an inmate at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre with whom he had a friendly relationship. The inmate, named Pete Doige, was an aspiring painter who was serving a five-month sentence for possession of LSD. Now, as an article published in the Globe and Mail this weekend lays out, Fletcher is claiming in court that Doige is in fact Doig, and that the work in his possession is by extension worth a lot more than the hundred bucks he paid for it.
After a friend alerted Fletcher to the similarities between the name on his painting and that of the famous artist several years ago, Fletcher branded the painting as an early Doig and attempted to sell it via a gallery in Chicago. Doig himself then served Fletcher and the gallerist with a cease-and-desist letter, claiming that he didn’t paint the western tableau. Fletcher responded by suing Doig for damages between $5 million and $7 million in a trial that is scheduled to begin today, claiming that Doig blocked him from a large financial windfall by falsely disavowing the work. Doig must now prove that he did not paint the painting in question if he wants to avoid paying up.
Doig has a pretty strong case. There is no record of Doig having attended Lakehead University, where Doige and Fletcher supposedly first met before Doige’s stint in jail, or having worked at the Seafarer’s Union, where Fletcher supposedly set Doige up with employment. Doig’s lawyers also tracked down a deceased Canadian man named Peter Doige, who did attend Lakehead, and was a member of the Seafarer’s Union. Neither Doig nor the dead Doige are on record as having served time at Thunder Bay Correctional, however, but the former art teacher at the jail swears that he watched the dead Doige paint the desert painting. The dead Doige’s sister believes that her brother is the artist responsible, and that the image depicts an area in Arizona where their mother used to live.
The prosecution’s Doig=Doige evidence is less concrete, but eerier. Doig is known for painting haunted, bare landscapes, often with a body of water at the fore, just like the Doige painting. His work is generally less figurative than the Doige but it’s not hard to see the resemblance. If you took a well-known Doig painting—say, Grand Riviere, from 2002—and asked yourself, ‘What would this look like if it were painted a few decades ago, when the artist was still finding his style?’ you might imagine something a lot like what you see above. (Check out the YouTube channel belonging to Fletcher’s gallerist, which documents alleged similarities between the works, if you’re looking for a good rabbit hole.)
There are other similarities: Doig and the man that sold Fletcher the painting are both of Scottish heritage, and Doig has said that he used LSD as a young man. Doig and the dead Doige bear a strong physical resemblance to one another. And, according to Fletcher’s attorneys, there is a gap in the record of Doig’s life that coincides with the time that the desert painter apparently spent in jail.
But even if Fletcher wins, he might still be out of luck. Amy Adler, an art law expert at NYU, told the Globe and Mail that regardless of the verdict, the art market would not treat the painting seriously if Doig disavows it. “Whatever a judge says about authenticity is irrelevant,” she said. “The market will follow Doig’s word.”