Peter Doig Testifies in Bizarre Authentication Trial, Calls Claim Against Him Unethical

A main question in the trial is where Doig was when the painting was made.

Peter Doige, desert landscape. Courtesy ARIS Title ‏@ARIS_ArgoGroup via Twitter.

The painter Peter Doig began his much-anticipated courtroom testimony Monday, August 15, alongside a digital image of a Lakehead University ID for one Peter Doige, with an e. On direct examination, the artist’s lawyer, Matthew S. Dontzin, asked him simply: Is that you? No. Have you ever been to Thunder Bay? No. Do you have any criminal record in Canada? No. Were you ever prevented from traveling to the US because a drug conviction? No. Have you ever sought employment from the Seafarers Union? Not yet, came Doig’s wry and weary reply.

Doig was called to give testimony by the attorneys for the defense, Dontzin and Tibor Nagy (he had already been called by the plaintiffs to give testimony on August 8, the first day of the trial). The artist is standing trial at the Federal District court for Northern Illinois, a defendant in a bizarre case in which he’s been accused by an art dealer and a former corrections officer of denying that he created a painting. The painting is potentially worth millions, if it is shown that Doig—whose record at auction is $25.9 million—created it. It is signed “Pete Doige 76.”

The Scottish-born Doig may not have an e in his surname, but he did live in Canada, where the painting turned up, as an adolescent. And he was there in 1976.

The co-plaintiff, Robert Fletcher, who worked as a corrections officer in Thunder Bay Correctional Center, claims that a teenaged Doig sold him the painting for $100 in 1977, when the young artist was allegedly incarcerated. Doig, who would have been 16 or 17 at the time, is adamant that he never went to jail, and the painting isn’t his, but the plaintiffs contend that Doig is disavowing the painting in an effort to cover up a long-hidden criminal past.

The case is being heard in Chicago because Fletcher is working with Chicago gallerist Peter Bartlow, his co-plaintiff, to auction the painting. How this remarkable case ended up in any court at all isn’t entirely clear.

One part of the story is very simple. Doig unequivocally denies the painting is his.

Testifying about reviewing the artwork he was sent to authenticate in 2011 via high-resolution image, Doig said about how much time he needed to determine the work wasn’t his, “It took me seconds.”

Those fateful seconds, however, have resulted in what Doig called “thousands of hours” of wasted working time and stress. Referring to Barlow and Fletcher, he said, “They threatened me, they bullied me, they said they would go to the authorities unless I came clean. I was shocked and I have to say a little bit afraid of their determination.”

Still, Doig proceeded to list the many reasons why he knew this wasn’t his painting. “It’s not my signature.” And indeed, besides having a surname with an extra “e,” the first name was also wrong according to Doig. “I never use ‘Pete’ and I never sign ‘Pete.’” Furthermore, he said, he signed his paintings almost exclusively on the back, where this one was signed on the front. Saying that he only made “sketches with poster paint and some drawings” in the mid-1970s, Doig said that he made his first painting on canvas, “a life painting of a girl who was modeling for us,” only after he moved to England in 1979 to study at the Wimbledon School of Art.

Perhaps most convincingly, Doig testified that of the more than 500 paintings he made in his life, “zero” were painted, as this one was, in acrylic.

Saying “I’m not going to create a fake of my own work,” Doig denied being embarrassed by the quality of the picture. “If I had made this painting at age 16 or 17, I would have been immensely proud of it.” He also rebuffed the idea that he was rejecting it to cover up a history of drug use or criminality, pointing out that he frequently references his LSD use in his interviews and telling a story about being arrested in London for stealing a sweater (he apologized and paid a fine).

Particularly upsetting to Doig was the idea that he was being pressured to take someone else’s work as his own. “I was being asked to claim a painting by someone who we’ve heard had a far less fortunate time than I’ve had. I find that unethical and completely despicable.”

Most of Doig’s remarks on Monday concerned a timeline for the year in which the painting in question was made. Just exactly where Doig was at the time it was made is one of the main questions before the court.

Echoing his mother’s testimony from the morning, Doig confirmed his status as a ski-obsessed bad student and detailed his enrollment at two Toronto schools, Jarvis Collegiate Institute and the Seed School, and two trips he took in the summer of 1976, to Edmonton, Alberta for work on an oil rig, and to Utah and Arizona on an ill-fated ski trip.

The more Doig detailed his whereabouts, and provided the names of various friends, co-workers, and bosses who could confirm his mere presence at this or that location 40 years ago, the more it seemed like making the painting was a crime for which he had to provide an air-tight alibi.

William F. Zieske, the attorney for the plaintiffs, combed over every detail and document in a deep baritone during his cross examination, which was so loud that Doig asked on two separate occasions, “Are you shouting at me?”

Questioning Doig’s yearbook photos, presented as proof that he was in Toronto and not 15 hours north in Thunder Bay during the period in question, Zieske alleged that the photo could be of Doig’s brother Andrew. (Lawyers asked Doig to identify his brother on a subsequent page and asked, reasonably, why one person would appear in photos for two separate graduating classes.)

Calling into question Doig’s employment record at various restaurants and on a gas rig in Alberta, the plaintiffs pointed out that Doig had been unable to produce tax documents for any of these jobs and that the Canada Revenue Agency has sent a document saying no such records existed. (This seemed like a big hole in Doig’s case until a second letter from the CRA appeared, saying that they didn’t keep records of personal taxes before 1982.) Finally and relentlessly, the plaintiffs attacked previous timelines that Doig and his various representatives had given, focusing on a period during the Fall of 1976.

Most damning was the fact that in a 2013 email to his gallery, Doig had written, “I DID NOT ATTEND HIGH SCHOOL 76/77.” But he later testified that he in fact attended two months of school before dropping out.

Under continued cross examination, Doig said repeatedly, and not very convincingly, that “complete” and “attend” meant the same thing to him. Doig also repeatedly admitted that his timelines from previous correspondences had been off by one year, and that he had only pieced things together by looking at the various school records that had been requested for the trial, and by consulting his mother’s letters to his grandmother, which contained pertinent details about his high school days.

The day ended with a lengthy report from the defense expert witness Larry Cowley, a former police officer from Ontario, about the documents relating to the sentence and time served in Thunder Bay by the man named Peter Doige.

The man by the name of Peter Edward Doige, who allegedly did spend time at Thunder Bay in the 1970s, died in 2012.

The trial will continue on August 16.

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