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Judge denies Scottish artist's request to toss suit stemming from attempted sale of painting he claims isn't his

By Kenneth Lowe | Oct 17, 2014

An artist who derailed the auction of a painting attributed to him by claiming it was not his will need to defend himself in court against a Chicago gallery and a man seeking to sell the piece he asserts he bought for $100 four decades ago.

The seller, Robert Fletcher of Ontario, and the gallery, Bartlow Gallery Ltd., sued Scottish born artist Peter Doig in April, claiming he had sabotaged their efforts to sell the painting, which they contend “would have brought future economic advantage to the plaintiffs in a sum exceeding $1 million and up to $12 million.”

The dispute over the untitled acrylic painting alleged to be worth so much will play out in Chicago's federal court, where U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman recently denied Doig's motion to dismiss the suit and gave him until Tuesday to answer the complaint. Court records show a status hearing is slated for Thursday.

Feinerman's Sept. 30 ruling includes a reproduction of the painting that depicts a vividly colorful desert scene from the side of a pond and is signed simply “1976 Peter Doige."

The painting at the crux of the suit is at the end of a long and strange journey.

Fletcher claims he met Doig in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1975 while taking classes at the local university. He contends Doig went by "Pete Doige" and said he was from Scotland.

At the time, Fletcher worked at the nearby correctional center, where he claims he recognized "Doige" as he was being taken in as an inmate on a charge of LSD possession. Fletcher contends "Doige" was about 17 years old then.

In his ruling, Feinerman notes that "for the sake of clarity, the seventeen year-old fellow will be referred to as 'Doige,' with the court of course taking no position on the correctness of Fletcher’s belief that Doige and Doig are the same person."

During his five-month stint behind bars, "Doige" participated in the correctional center’s art program, during which time Fletcher bore witness to the creation of the painting at issue in the case. Upon his release, Fletcher claims he was assigned to be his parole officer and the two communicated regularly.

“During Doig’s parole period, Fletcher saw him approximately two to three times per month, although Doig contacted Fletcher more frequently by telephone,” the plaintiffs allege in their suit. “During their conversations, Doig asserted that he had no income, no more student loans, and no parental funds available to him.”

It was during that period that "Doige" allegedly sold the painting in question to Fletcher for $100.

Fletcher consigned the painting to the Bartlow Gallery in Chicago, granting it a percentage of any sale. According to their suit, the gallery intended to put the painting up for auction at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago, but efforts to confirm the work was Doig’s were met with vehement denial on the part of Doig’s representatives.

Gordon VeneKlasen, Doig’s art dealer at the time, wrote to Bartlow on Doig's behalf in an Oct. 3, 2011 email: “Whatever this person [Fletcher] alleges is untrue. The painting is NOT by Peter Doig. Anyone can see that. We are not interested in any further communication related to this. Good luck in finding the real artist for this. Any attempt to attribute this painting to Peter Doig in any way will be dealt with by our attorneys.”

To bolster the plaintiffs' contentions that the painting was in fact done by Doig, the suit notes Doig’s personal history of admitted LSD use, compositional similarities between the work at issue and the other works in Doig’s portfolio, and the fact they could not locate another man by the name of Peter Doig or Doige living in Canada in the late 70s.

“Doig has admitted publicly that he used LSD up to the age of nineteen, and three of his famous paintings, Windowpane, Blotter and Orange Sunshine, bear titles that are street names for varieties of LSD,” the plaintiffs' suit states.

Ultimately, Doig sent a letter to Hindman Auctioneers, disavowing the work, which the plaintiffs allege caused the auction house to not put up the painting.

The suit notes Doig has publicly denied having been a painter at the time Fletcher claims to have obtained the painting, but point out he has also not released any details about his whereabouts during the time frame in question.

Feinerman said in his recent ruling that the "plot has since thickened," noting the defendants' counsel found a woman claiming to be the sister of a “Peter Edward Doige."

She said her brother died in 2012 in Canada, but spent time in the correctional center in Thunder Bay and told her he took painting and classes while behind bars.

The plaintiffs' attorney, however, claims he talked to this woman's mother, who said she thought her son was incarcerated in Florida, not Canada, and that he didn't paint much.

In seeking the dismissal of the suit against him, the ruling states Doig argued he was not subject to personal jurisdiction in Illinois because he “had zero contacts with anyone in Illinois” and “Plaintiffs cannot point to any contact that Doig directly made with anyone in this forumjurisdiction should not apply to him."

"That argument is without merit," Feinerman wrote.

While he denied Doig's motion, the judge late last month granted motions to dismiss from VeneKlasen, the art dealer, Matthew S. Dontzin and The Dontzin Law Firm LLP, who claimed they were acting on Doig's behalf, and not to serve their personal interests.

He dismissed them from the suit for lack of personal jurisdiction.

The lawsuit against Doig seeks damages for his alleged interference with their prospective economic advantage by taking actions that prevented the auction of the painting. They also want a court declaration that Doig in fact painted the painting.

Court records show Crystal Lake attorney William Frederick Zieske is representing Fletcher and the Bartlow Gallery. Chicago attorney Suyash Agrawal represents Doig.

The above photo was taken from the court's Sept. 30 ruling, which lists it as a reproduction of the painting at the center of this lawsuit.

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