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The Bizarre Art Lawsuit Where a Painter Proved He Didn’t Paint Something

It’s not every day that a renowned artist like Peter Doig has to show that a painting isn’t his.

The painting in question   Photo: Courtesy of Peter Bartlow Gallery

A bizarre lawsuit just wrapped in Chicago this week, pitting an internationally renowned artist against a deceitful art dealer—and the dealer got a two-hour smackdown from a federal judge during the oral decision. Here’s what you need to know about the ridiculous art-world courtroom drama.

Who Was Involved: The defendant, Peter Doig, is one of the world’s most famous British artists whose paintings have sold for as much as $25 million. (The Art Institute owns a couple of great Doig works.) The plaintiffs claimed Doig made a painting they once bought for $100, signed “Pete Doige 76,” which would make it the earliest known Peter Doig work, and which they intended to sell for millions. But it turns out the real Pete Doige was also a painter—a hobby he enjoyed in prison—who died in 2012.

What They Claimed: An artist rarely has to prove he didn’t make an artwork in a courtroom testimony. The plaintiffs, including a Canadian corrections officer and a Chicago art dealer, sued Doig for $5 million in damages since his disavowal of the work significantly decreased its worth. Doig’s supposed motive for saying the painting wasn’t his? He’s embarrassed by the old artwork and his time in prison, the plaintiff claimed. Expert witnesses included Chicago auctioneer Leslie Hindman, a prison art teacher, an art historian, and the artist’s mother.

How Doig Responded: Doig didn’t mince words: he called the case “a scam” in the New York Times. His lawyers claimed the art dealer was trying to profit from Doig’s famous name.

What happened?: Everyone saw this verdict coming: After seven long days of trial, Judge Gary Feinerman declared it “impossible” that Doig made the painting in a Canadian prison in 1976, when he was 16 years old and in high school. Doig “absolutely did not paint the disputed work,” he said.

Who’s Been Watching: Newspapers from London and New York picked up the local courtroom saga. It has repercussions for the rights of artists who can easily be taken advantage of because they do not profit when their artwork is sold by secondary-market dealers and auctions. Side note, the Chicago Reader actually broke this news story in 2013, before a lawsuit was filed. The trial took place in Chicago because it was filed here—the Peter Bartlow Gallery has a mailing address in Lincoln Park.

Other Oddities: An insane YouTube channel by art dealer Bartlow features short conspiracy theory videos that hilariously fail to prove that Doig painted Doige’s painting. As of this writing, the Peter Bartlow Gallery’s website still has the painting listed available for purchase—under the name Peter Doig.

Best comic relief of the trial: The art dealer’s lawyer exclaimed, randomly, “Did Captain Butterknife paint this?” The jury is still out on what the hell he was talking about.

Left to right: Chicago art gallery owner Peter Bartlow, attorney William Zieske, and painting owner Robert Fletcher talk with media following the judge’s ruling. Photo: Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune

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