Hoping to strike gold by stumbling across a masterpiece in the attic or at next Sunday’s car boot fair? You wouldn’t be alone.
It’s a natural consequence of the stratospheric prices attached to works of art that buyers, collectors and viewers might as well be looking at a framed wad of cash instead of a painting. Found a lost Manet? Cash in and retire tomorrow. Found a lost painting by your uncle Manny? Well, that’s nice. Maybe you’ll find a frame for it if it’s not too expensive.
Disputes over the authenticity of artworks aren’t new, but they’ve been usually confined to posthumous sales or discoveries. This year, I was explaining one such case of a painting attributed to Lucian Freud to Lord Balders.
Stranger still, though, was the recently concluded case regarding a painting made by Pete Doige in Canada in 1976. Robert Fletcher bought the painting for $100, and later was told that the painting was by a famous artist. Peter Bartlow, an art dealer, agreed to help Mr. Fletcher sell the painting… however, their plan was scuppered when the famous artist in question, Peter Doig, denied that the painting was his.
Naturally, the pair were not happy that the painting’s supposed value of $10m had plummeted – although it surely had risen above $100 CA since 1976. They took the dispute to court in order to get a declaration that the work was authentic… and damages of almost $8m.
In fact, this was a case of mistaken identity fueled by a remarkable coincidence of names, places and artistic subject matter. Peter Doige, the true artist, passed away in 2012.
This case required an artist to prove that he didn’t paint a picture. Peter Doig had to prove where he was and wasn’t, 40 years ago, and dredge up evidence of this for a court. It also required testimony from the sister of the late Peter Doige, which must have been distressing for her. Add to the emotional costs incurred the financial costs of both plaintiff and defendant… this was a tragic farce fuelled by money.
The painting in question might well have given Mr Fletcher decades of enjoyment before he was told that it was by a famous artist. Now, it has brought him and many others a lot of grief.