By his own admission, Peter Doig led an unusual lifestyle when as a teenager he left home to wander the Canadian prairies. The Scottish-born artist and one of Europe’s most sought-after living painters worked with a gas drilling crew. He also occasionally took LSD.
What Doig insists did not happen is that he was jailed in a Canadian youth detention facility in the mid-1970s for possession of the psychedelic drug and during this time completed a painting which is now the subject of a $12m (£7.8m) legal battle.
The 53-year-old artist, who now lives in Trinidad, is being sued by a former parole officer at the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in Ontario after denying that he painted a landscape which has hung in Robert Fletcher’s home since 1976.
Doig has long been enigmatic about his youth in Canada, describing how he briefly used LSD as a teenager and took up drawing as a 17-year-old while working on a drilling platform before attending art school in London.
Now, Mr Fletcher, a former volunteer probation officer for the Ontario government, has issued a lawsuit in the American courts claiming that he got to know Doig in 1975 when the pair were briefly at a university in Thunder Bay, close to Lake Superior.
The legal claim states that when Doig was allegedly remanded to the town’s youth prison shortly afterwards for five months for possession of LSD, Mr Fletcher was appointed his parole officer and watched as the teenager completed a painting as part of an arts course at the facility.
The resulting 34in by 41in canvas, which shows a distinctive rocky desert scene with a stagnant pond with the signature of one “Pete Doige”, is claimed by Mr Fletcher to have been sold to him by Doig for $100 after he had helped the teenager to secure a job working on boats on the Great Lakes.
The claim states: “Fletcher helped Doig to obtain employment through the Seafarers Union in Thunder Bay. Fletcher also encouraged Doig to pursue his artistic talent and accepted Doig’s offer to sell the work for $100. Since that day, in or about 1976 to the present, Fletcher has owned the work.”
The lawsuit has brought a strong riposte on behalf of Doig from his lawyers and representatives, who say they are incredulous at the claims that the artist served time for a drug offence and can produce proof that he was never in Thunder Bay or its detention facility.
Critics are also sceptical as to whether the painting owned by Mr Fletcher, matches the style of the painter. Michael Glover, art critic for The Independent, said: “I doubt very much whether this is by Doig. It is certainly unlike anything I have ever seen by him. The forms are too definitely grounded in the landscape, too crisply and surely defined. Doig does not use shadow like this. His paintings have a kind of indefinite surface shimmer. They look as if they are perpetually in the making. This is too assuredly itself.”
What is not in dispute is that in 1979, Doig, the son of an Edinburgh accountant, moved to London from Canada to enrol in art school and started a journey which made him one of the world’s most in-demand painters. In February, his painting The Architect’s House in the Ravine, was sold by Christie’s for £6.8m and the sale in 2007 of another work, White Canoe, set a new record for a living European painter.
In previous interviews, the artist has spoken of how he left home to work as a labourer for a gas drilling company, sleeping in barns and becoming fascinated by the landscape and still lifes. He has also talked of occasionally using LSD as a teenager “without being a total acid head like some of my friends”. He stopped taking the drug when he was 18.
But where he objects vehemently is the suggestion that he served time for LSD possession and is the author of Mr Fletcher’s landscape.
In an email sent to Peter Bartlow, the Chicago gallery owner who is trying to authenticate and sell the painting, Gordon VeneKlasen, who is Doig’s art dealer, wrote: “Not only does Mr Doig not know the owner of this work, he has never been to the place it is supposedly painted. Additionally, he did not even begin to paint on canvas until late 1979. The signature… is definitely not the signature of Peter Doig.”
Michael Dontzin, the New York lawyer representing the artist, told The Independent that the claim was without foundation. “The case has absolutely no basis in fact. The painting is not a Peter Doig and the allegations have been entirely fabricated.”