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Former Prison Guard Hit With $2.5 Million Judgment in Suit to Force Painter to Acknowledge Painting He Did Not Create

by Benjamin Tschirhart

Over 10 years ago, when former prison guard Robert Fletcher heard from a friend that a painting he owned was an early untitled work by artist Peter Doig, Fletcher was understandably elated; Doig is a renowned artist whose paintings normally sell for millions of dollars.

Fletcher had come to own the painting while attending Lakehead University from 1975 to 1978, when he also worked as a guard at Thunder Bay Correctional Center (TBCC) in Ontario. There, Fletcher met and befriended a participant in the prison’s fine arts educational program. That prisoner, who was serving a sentence for LSD possession, created the painting, which Fletcher purchased for $100. 

The artist didn’t give the work a title, but he did sign it: “Pete Doige.” Not exactly the same as “Peter Doig,” but Fletcher did not immediately conclude that they were two different people. After contacting Chicago art dealer Peter Bartlow and making an agreement to split the proceeds of the sale, Fletcher requested a preliminary assessment from Sotheby’s auction house, which remarked on the “trademark” similarities between his painting and later works by the more-famous Doig. 

Setting out to have the painting authenticated, Fletcher attempted to contact Doig through Gordon VeneKlasen, an employee of the gallery that represented the famous artist. He conveyed Doig’s response to Fletcher: Doig had never lived in Thunder Bay, never attended Lakehead, never met Fletcher, and the painting was not his work.

When Fletcher reported this to Bartlow, the art dealer responded to VeneKlasen with a vaguely threatening email, which alluded to the prison sentence and promised that he did “not wish to bring up anything which Mr. Doig would wish to remain private.” He closed with the assurance that “the circumstances shall remain forgotten” if only the gallery would “ask the artist to agree that he painted it.” 

VeneKlasen refused, stating emphatically, “The painting is not by Peter Doig…Any attempts to attribute this painting to Peter Doig in any way will be dealt with by our attorneys.” An average person might have stopped there.

Fletcher and Bartlow did not.

In April 2013 they filed suit against Doig, VeneKlasen, Doig’s attorney, Matthew Dontzin, and Dontzin’s law firm. Defendants provided abundant evidence that Peter Marryat Doig was not the person who created the painting, including Doig’s school records for the years when the suit alleged he was in prison. They also located a sister of one Peter Edward Doige, who declared that her brother had indeed attended Lakehead and been held at TBCC. 

In an August 2016 bench trial, the federal court of the Northern District of Illinois found in favor of Doig, who then moved for sanctions against Plaintiffs.

In its decision on the motion reached on December 30, 2022, the Court opined that while the lawsuit might have been initiated on a reasonable basis, Plaintiffs “should have begun to have substantial doubts about their claims” by the time Doig filed his response to the complaint in 2014. Their persistence in the face of overwhelming evidence against them amounted to frivolous litigation, the Court said.

Fletcher and Bartlow argued that since the suit survived summary judgment, it could not be frivolous and was thus exempt from sanctions. The Court rejected this argument, saying it would mean that no case surviving summary judgment could ever then be found frivolous. 

Accordingly, $2,525,958.35 in sanctions were imposed to offset the bulk of Defendant’s legal costs against Fletcher, Barlow and William F. Zieske, the lawyer for Bartlow and his gallery. See: Fletcher v. Doig, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 233651 (N.D. Ill.).

The day after that, on December 31, 2022, the Court awarded Defendants another $59,401.27 in costs. See: Fletcher v. Doig, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 234007 (N.D. Ill.).

Additional source: New York Times

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