Here’s What Happened on the Last Day of Peter Doig’s Ridiculous Trial

In which one lawyer says, “Did Captain Butterknife paint this?"

Peter Doig. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

With labyrinthine rhetoric about uncanny convergences, induced coincidences, secret photos, and even “a Twilight Zone” of evidence caused by “too many records,” the closing arguments in the final day of the Peter Doig trial were as strange and unsettling as the case itself. At one point, the plaintiffs’ attorney William Zieske even declared, “My basic understanding of the rules of probability has been shaken.”

“If you want to look at is as a whodunit, the question is instead of a murder, who painted this painting?” Zieske declared, spelling out the basic plotline before the court.

The painting, signed “Pete Doige 76,” was made in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1976, but that’s where the stories diverge. (Along with the pronunciation of Doige, with the defense saying “Doy-gee,” the Judge saying “Dough-idge,” and the plaintiffs saying “Doig with an e.”)

The plaintiffs, former Thunder Bay corrections officer Robert Fletcher and Chicago gallerist Peter Bartlow, assert that the Scottish painter, Peter Doig, made the painting as an incarcerated teen, and that as an early work of the now-famous artist, it is now worth $6 million–8 million.

Doig says he didn’t make the painting, and his lawyers are arguing that a now-dead convict named Peter Doige, with an e, made the painting.

Peter Marryat Doig, the living painter, was born on April 17, 1959. Peter Edward Doige, the deceased amateur painter, was born on April 7, 1955. It is rather odd.

The Argument for the Plaintiff
In Zieske’s telling, Peter Doig might be lying, or he may have just forgotten that he made the painting. Zieske admitted that many people had been asking him why, exactly, Doig would deny it? Saying there could be “myriad” reasons why Doig would refuse to accept the painting as his own, Zieske chose not to specify any of them, saying instead that he “couldn’t look into his soul.”

Instead, in court today, the lawyer took a strange detour into his own biography, telling Judge Feinerman his own mother was a painter—adding emphatically, but somewhat ambiguously, “that’s why I do this!” Zieske then told the court his mom had “an artist’s personality,” that she “got in trouble with the law,” and that her memory was often “extremely different” from his own.

Going further, Zeiske described how he had gotten to know “the artistic temperament” over the years, despite the fact that he was himself a rational and dependable person. “Every artist I know has destroyed their own work,” he declared ominously, “sometimes their best work.”

Implying that Doig was destroying this work by refusing to claim it, Ziekse also described Doig as “disowning” the painting in question. Without an “alibi” as to his whereabouts in 1976, Zeiske said Doig would have to accept the painting as his own.

If Doig had too few records to show, Zieske argued that the other candidate for the disputed painting’s authorship, Doige, had “too many records.” The criminal records that showed Ziekse’s various convictions and his transfer to Thunder Bay in 1975, don’t all add up, he said—literally: Doige’s grade averages on his transcripts didn’t add up, he noted, and Doige’s University ID could have been faked.

All of the inconsistencies put Doige in two places at once, and put Zieske in an evidentiary “Twilight Zone.”

As for Doige’s paintings, Zieske reiterated the fact that, though photos of the works had been presented, they weren’t actually presented physically in court. “Something’s being hidden,” he said darkly. The Doige signature was usually blocky and big, he said, unlike the script “Doige” on the painting in court. The fact that Doige made another painting with a knife led Zieske to point  at the painting in the courtroom and exclaim dramatically, “Did Captain Butterknife paint this?”

Zieske said that there was no evidence that Peter Doig wasn’t at Thunder Bay, but he didn’t present any hard evidence to place him there, either. To the crucial question of whether Doig was in Toronto or 15 hours north, the best Zieske could say was “there is no record of either.”

In the absence of any court records or fingerprints, the only thing placing Doig at Thunder Bay is that the co-plantiff, Fletcher, says he recognizes the artist from 40 years ago. Likewise, the main testimony linking the painting to Doig’s style is the “Bartlow Method” of visual analysis provided by the other co-plaintiff, Bartlow.

Zieske finished his closing argument on this not-very-solid ground, asking for a judgment of $7.9 million dollars if the judge ruled Doig made the painting, and $100,000 if he ruled he did not. (The plaintiffs’ appraiser Wiener had valued the painting at $6 million–8 million if it were by Doig and at $100,000 if it were not. Fletcher and Bartlow are asking for the difference if the judge rules it is the real deal, and for the $100,000 if he rules it is not, as they are contending that Doig interfered with the sale either way.)

The Argument for the Defense
Summing up the plaintiffs’ presentation, Doig’s defense lawyer, Tibor Nagy, said bluntly, “With that evidence, this case should have ended years ago.”

To the question of why Doig would say he didn’t make the painting, Nagy said he would deny it simply because he didn’t, in fact, make the painting. Nagy contrasted this with the plaintiffs’ motives, which Nagy said were clearly about money.

As for the evidence, Nagy declared, “The burden is squarely on [the plaintiffs]. Despite that, we’ve proven that Mr. Doig didn’t paint this painting.” Neither the name nor the signature were Doig’s, Nagy repeated, and the defense had provided school records, yearbook photos, and a list of 30 witnesses that could attest to Doig’s whereabouts in 1976.

Furthermore, Doige had a criminal record linking him to Thunder Bay; Doig did not. Responding to the plaintiffs’ allegation that Doig needed an alibi, Nagy repeated again and again that his client had no burden of proof as he was the defendant in the case.

When Will It End?
Earlier in the day, Judge Feinerman had said that he might issue a verdict at the end of the day, but as the two sides finished their remarks, the Judge demurred. Despite a request from Doig’s lawyers for Feinerman to render the decision immediately, and issue the rationale later, the Judge insisted that he needed more time.

His verdict will be given orally at an as-yet-undetermined point in the coming weeks.

Feinerman’s final request was to examine the artwork further, so an arrangement was made to keep the painting in his chambers during the day, and the US District Court for Nothern Illinois’s safe at night. At this, Zieske gleefully declared that if the Judge wanted to hang the picture, he had “plenty of clients who could do that for you.” The judge declined the offer.


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