Chicago auctioneer testifies in high-profile art trial
August 8th, 2016
Chicago auction-house owner Leslie Hindman was the first witness today in a federal court case that’s drawing international attention.
Hindman is a notable name on the city’s civic and cultural scene as her company, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, often runs the charity auctions in town.
But this day, she took the stand in a case that challenges whether celebrated Scottish artist Peter Doig painted a work that a collector wants to sell. Doig says he didn’t paint it. (You can see Doig’s work here.)
The story began in 1975, when Robert Fletcher, an Ontario corrections officer, says he paid $100 for a Western-themed painting created by an inmate. The painting was signed by a Pete Doige and Fletcher came to believe that inmate, jailed for a drug charge, went on to become Doig, the artist whose work sells for millions of dollars. At least one Doig piece is part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
According to court filings, Fletcher approached art dealers to help him sell the work–among them was Peter Bartlow of Chicago-based Bartlow Gallery Ltd.
In 2012, Bartlow asked Hindman to consider auctioining work for him and Fletcher. She agreed pending the painting could be authenticated. That meant inquiring with Doig’s representatives, who were quick to deny it was his work.
Hindman then declined to auction it and that led to the lawsuit that’s now being tried in Chicago before U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feinerman.
“It was not deemed to be by Peter Doig,” Hindman said. “I would love to” sell a work by Peter Doig, she added. But “it was not a Peter Doig.”
Doig, who also took the stand, said, “I felt harassed into authenticating a painting I didn’t make.”
According to court filings, Fletcher and Bartlow saw Doig’s rejection of the painting as an effort to sabotage their efforts to sell the artwork, which they thought might go for as much $1 million or up to $12 million.
The judge has allowed the case to go to trial, much to the art world’s surprise. “To have to disprove that you created a work seems somehow wrong and not fair,” said Amy Adler, a professor at New York University Law School, told the New York Times.
The case is fascinating for anyone interested in the arts. Doig spent nearly two hours answering questions by prosecutors about how he goes about creating his work.
He discussed using projections and photographs to create images on canvas, creating collages and stencils and detailing the kinds of paints he uses and how he creates colors.
More than once, the artist became frustrated at the sometimes over-simplified definitions of art methods described by William Zieske, the Chicago attorney representing Fletcher and Bartlow, who also were in court.
“This is complicated unless you know the process,” said Doig, who paints landscapes generally considered abstract.
Fletcher also took the stand (come back to this story for an update on that testimony).
Matthew Dontzin, a New York litigator representing Doig, seemed exasperated that the case had even come to trial. In his opening statement he said there’s “a mountain of evidence” that supports that Doig and Doige are two different people.
He says his client was a teen-ager at the time the painting in question was created, that Doig didn’t begin painting on canvas until 1979, that records show a Pete Doige (who has since died) was an inmate at the time Fletcher worked as a corrections officer, that the painting is signed by Pete Doige (not Peter Doig) and that the late inmate’s own sister believes the painting is that of her deceased brother. “Fletcher and Bartlow have not produced a single document or one independent witness to show Peter M. Doig painted this painting or that Pete E. Doig didn’t,” Dontzin said.
The trial is expected to continue through the week.