1976 acrylic painting by Pete Doige
1976 acrylic painting by Pete Doige

Last summer Woodridge resident Doug Fletcher was visiting his older brother, Bob, in Canada, when Bob mentioned that an artist he’d purchased a painting from in 1976 might now be “kind of famous.” At least, that’s what a friend had told him.

The painting was hanging in Bob’s living room, over the couch, so Doug took a close look at it. A finely detailed 34-by-41-inch acrylic of a rocky desert landscape with a stagnant pond in the foreground, it had a signature in the lower-right-hand corner that looked like “Pete Doige,” and a date, “76.” That’s the year Bob paid a teenager by that name $100 for the work.

The painting had been made in an art class at Ontario’s Thunder Bay Correctional Centre, where Bob Fletcher was a corrections officer. Juvenile records are sealed, but according to Bob, Doige served five months of a one-year sentence for drug possession.

Bob now does construction work; Doug is a health-care recruiter and interfaith pastor. Neither of them is schooled in art, but upon viewing the painting Doug said he’d do some googling when he got home. A search for “Pete Doige” came up empty. But as Bob’s friend had suggested, Peter Doig—who was born in Scotland, lived in Canada as a teen in the 70s, made his name as an artist in London, and now lives in Trinidad—was in fact very successful. Among other things, he’d broken the auction record for a living European artist when his painting White Canoe sold for $11.3 million at Sotheby’s in 2007.

Looking at images of Doig’s work online, Doug Fletcher says, he was struck by similarities to the painting he’d seen in his brother’s home. “My first reaction was, boy, there’s no mistake, it’s his work.” He sent photos of the desert picture to the Art Institute of Chicago, seeking help in authenticating it, and says museum staff referred him to longtime local gallerist Peter Bartlow.

Bartlow, who’s had the painting in Chicago since last fall and would receive a commission on its sale, says there are a number of reasons to believe it was done by the now-famous Peter Doig. Recent photos and videos of the artist, available online, look to Bob Fletcher like the man he knew in Thunder Bay, “only older.” Doig has admitted in interviews that he used LSD as a teenager and that it influenced his work, and in Bartlow’s view has been “vague” about his whereabouts between 1976, when he apparently dropped out of high school and left home, and 1979, when he enrolled in art school in London, faking his academic record to get in. What he has said about those years is that he was a roustabout, drilling for gas on Canada’s western plains.

And Bartlow sees plenty of evidence in the work itself. He points to both its subject matter (especially the pond in the foreground) and its layered horizontal composition, which he says is echoed in many works by Doig. Just when you might be thinking that landscapes tend to be composed this way—water in the foreground, sky above, and earthly forms like boulders and plants in the midrange—Bartlow brings up a little video that he’s made in which he turns a transparent version of the desert scene upside down over another Doig painting, Grand Riviere. (The latter’s featured on the cover of Peter Doig, a Phaidon catalog published the year before his 2008 retrospective at Tate Britain.) One picture is lush, loose, and impressionistic, the other bone dry and surreal, but if you drop out the color and specific subject matter, yes, the major shapes and their placement match up like nearly identical puzzle pieces.

“He’s had this composition in his head,” Bartlow supposes, “and he keeps re-creating it.”

Thinking the artist might want to keep his alleged time in Thunder Bay private, Bartlow says he e-mailed Doig, offering to sell him the painting, exchange it for another, or, barring that, asking for authentication so it could be sold elsewhere. Doig responded through his New York dealer, Gordon VeneKlasen of Michael Werner Gallery. In e-mails to VeneKlasen, Bartlow wrote that “Mr. Fletcher is only interested in receiving a fair price for the painting, and does not wish to bring up anything which Mr. Doig would wish to remain private.”

Doig’s Gasthof zur Muldentalsperre, 2000

VeneKlasen responded that the painting “is absolutely not by Peter Doig,” who has “never been to the place that it was supposedly painted.” He followed up with this: “The painting is NOT by Peter Doig. Anyone can see that. . . . Any attempt to attribute this painting to Peter Doig in any way will be dealt with by our attorneys.” (VeneKlasen did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

A subsequent letter from New York-based Dontzin Law Firm informs Bartlow that he is to cease any communication with Doig or his dealer, and that his “unfounded accusations and attempts to extort money or promises from Mr. VeneKlasen unless he authenticates Mr. Fletcher’s painting are potentially criminal.”

Bartlow says he’s baffled by this response. “I think the attorney, the dealer, and the artist are trying to threaten us with legal action to make us go away,” he says.

The American Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 gives living artists the ultimate authority to authenticate or deny a work. And although the law specifies only work made from that date on, that’s the generally accepted rule. “I have a degree in art history, and I’m a 40-year dealer,” Bartlow says. “I know what I’m looking at. You don’t get coincidences like this with the same age, same look, same country, same composition, and same name, except for one letter. But who’s going to authenticate it?”

Bob Fletcher says Pete Doige left Thunder Bay not long after he was released from the correctional center. Fletcher, who served as Doige’s parole officer, says he encouraged him to be an artist (in part by buying the painting), and helped him get a job through the Seafarers International Union, working boats on the Great Lakes. Then, about a year later, Fletcher recalls, Doige called him from Toronto. He wanted permission to come and take professional pictures of the painting. Fletcher says he arranged for this with his former wife, who later told him about the artist’s visit. “He came with a photographer and the photographer’s assistant,” Bob said in a phone interview. “They all flew in from Toronto, took several pictures, had coffee with my wife, and then flew back.”

That sounds a little odd, but Bartlow wonders if the young artist needed those photos for his applications to art school. “This was the first painting he sold,” says Bartlow, who points out that if the young artist was in fact Peter Doig, “Who knows where he’d be today if Bob didn’t buy it?”

Bartlow says he and Fletcher are continuing their research, hoping to prove that Pete Doige is Peter Doig. But last week they went ahead and put a price on the work: one million dollars.