1976 acrylic painting by Pete Doige

One of the art world’s most bizarre cases has been quietly playing out this month in district court judge Gary Feinerman’s courtroom, located in the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop.

In a bench trial that’s attracted only a smattering of observers, international art star Peter Doig has been fighting to prove that he didn’t create the finely detailed, surrealistic desert landscape that’s currently being displayed on an easel at one side of the courtroom.

The painting’s owner, former Canadian corrections officer Robert “Bob” Fletcher, and his art dealer, longtime Chicago gallerist Peter Bartlow, are suing Doig for denying that he was the artist.

Why do they care enough to make a federal case out of it? In 2015 a Doig painting sold for $25.9 million.

According to expert testimony heard in court last week, if Doig owned up to this one, it would go for $6 to $8 million.

Fletcher and Bartlow hoped to sell the painting through Leslie Hindman’s Chicago auction house—a plan that was thwarted, they say, when the artist refused to acknowledge the work. Their complaint, filed three years ago, seeks damages, costs, and the right to attribute the artwork to Doig.

If this story sounds familiar, it might be because you read about it here, in the Reader, when I first came across it four years ago. There wasn’t any lawsuit at that point, but Bartlow and Fletcher were giving the account they’ve reiterated in court: Fletcher bought the painting for $100 in 1976 from a teenager who painted it while he was incarcerated at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, where Fletcher worked.

Fletcher knew the kid as Pete Doige—with an e on the end—which is the signature that appears on the painting. Many years later a friend told him it could be the work of someone famous, and Fletcher’s brother, who lived in the Chicago area, did some online research. Nothing turned up for Pete Doige—but Peter Doig, who was born in Scotland but grew up in Canada, was, in fact, a wildly successful contemporary artist.

After checking out images of Doig’s work, Fletcher’s brother made some inquiries at the Art Institute and was referred to Bartlow by someone there.

Bartlow agreed that the painting did look like the work of Peter Doig (mostly because of some similar shapes), and Fletcher thought pictures he saw of the famous artist resembled the Doige he’d known. Speculating that Doig might not want the world to know that he’d been in prison, Bartlow contacted him offering to sell him the painting. The response he received came from Gordon VeneKlasen, the artist’s dealer at New York’s Michael Werner Gallery: a vehement denial, and a threat of legal action against any further attempt to attribute the work to Doig.

In court last week, Bartlow testified that the strength of that denial convinced him that he was right, and he insisted he was only after the truth. But in a lengthy cross-examination, Doig attorney Tibor Nagy read from e-mails Bartlow had written in which he alluded to “something hidden that should remain hidden,” and suggested, “We can make a deal and sign a nondisclosure agreement and this thing can go away forever.”

Doig’s defense team consists of the Chicago firm of Agrawal Evans, working with the New York firm Dontzin Nagy & Fleissig, which is doing the heavy lifting; they’ve had eight or more attorneys, assistants, and assorted others buzzing around their table. Facing off against them: William F. Zieske, of Zieske Law, and his two clients.

Bartlow claims that the painting Fletcher bought contains a “visual repertoire” of shapes that the artist used repeatedly in his subsequent work, perhaps copying elements from a photograph of the painting. In some of the trial’s strangest moments, Nagy applied what he called the Bartlow Method—laying a transparency of one painting on top of another—in order to demonstrate that he too could get the shapes to match with the disputed painting—and on a Magritte and the Mona Lisa. Also, on “every other painting I tried it on.”

Doig himself testified that he does, regularly, use “photographic projection of various types in the beginning of making a painting,” tracing the lines of a projected photograph or drawing in charcoal or paint. That has led Bartlow to revise his theory of Doig’s motivation for denial: he now thinks the artist won’t acknowledge it because he doesn’t want the public to know that he’s been using it over and over again.

On Friday the defense produced the sister and the former common-law wife of a man named Pete Doige, a Canadian who died in 2012. He had done some painting, they each said, and also had told them he’d served time in prison. Peter Doig denies that he was in prison during the period in question, and his mom testified that in 1976 he was living at home in Toronto.

The defense also produced Ernie Adams, who taught an art class at the prison in 1976. Adams said he recognized the desert painting, and recalled watching, during a period of months, as one of his inmate students, Pete Doige, created it.

After closing arguments on Tuesday, the judge said he’ll need some time to go over the case but hopes to have a decision next week.  v