WASHINGTON (TIP): OK, Peter Doig may have tried LSD a few times when he was growing up in Canada during the 1970s. But he still knows, he said, when a painting is or isn’t his.
So when Doig — whose eerie, magical landscapes have made him one of the world’s most popular artists — was sent a photograph of a canvas he said he didn’t recognize, he disavowed it.
“I said, ‘Nice painting,'” he recalled in an interview. “‘Not by me.'”
The owner, however, disagreed and sued him, setting up one of the stranger art authentication cases in recent history.
The owner, a former corrections officer who said he knew Doig while working in a Canadian detention facility, said the famous painter indeed created the work as a youthful inmate there. His suit contends that Doig is either confused or lying and that his denials blew up a plan to sell the work for millions of dollars.
But Doig, 57, has compelling evidence he was never near the facility, the Thunder Bay Correctional Center, about 15 hours northwest of Toronto.
“This case is a scam, and I’m being forced to jump through hoops to prove my whereabouts over 40 years ago,” he said.
To Doig’s surprise, though — and the astonishment of others in the art world — a federal judge in Chicago has set the case for trial next month in US District Court for Northern Illinois. Art law experts say they can’t recall anything like it, certainly not for a major artist like Doig.
“To have to disprove that you created a work seems somehow wrong and not fair,” said Amy M. Adler, a professor at New York University Law School. The stakes are high as well. A Doig painting has sold for more than $25 million. Other works have routinely sold at auction for as much as $10 million. The plaintiffs, who include the correction officer and the art dealer who agreed to help him sell the work, are suing the painter for at least $5 million in damages and seek a court declaration that it is authentic.
They have focused on what they say is a hole in Doig’s teenage years in Canada when, they assert, he cannot fully account for where he was or what he was doing.
“Every artist has destroyed work,” said William F. Zieske, the lawyer for the painting’s owner and the art dealer. “We can’t really get into his mind and say why he looked at this painting and said, ‘I am not going to own that.’ I don’t think anyone can.”
Disputes about authenticity, a vexatious topic in the art world, tend to center on the works of dead artists. Legal claims, when they arise, are usually made against experts who have doubted the art’s veracity, and not against the artist.
A decision against Doig, and any costly award for damages, would nevertheless probably send a shock wave through the art world. “It would,” said Nicholas M. O’Donnell, a Boston art lawyer who has no role in the case, “put all artists in the cross hairs.”
(NYT News Service)