There is a certain set of people, call them the Walter Mittys of the art world who haunt garbage heaps and flea markets and hope to ﬁnd masterpieces that will make them millionaires.
I sometimes fall into this category myself. Once I rescued a Gertrude E. Spurr painting from the garbage and another time I found a Daphne Odjig print. My dreams of Freedom 55 were shattered forever when a friend who happens to be an appraiser told me that the Odjig was without monetary value. The Spurr, however, was a diﬀerent kettle of ﬁsh. It was a nice little marine painting complete with water, sand dunes and trees.
It was, according to my friend, worth $500. Unfortunately, when I pointed out the two small, very small holes in it, the value dropped by half. Still we can always hope. There was, after all, a case earlier this summer when a retired French archeologist discovered an Albrecht Durer print, Mary Crowned by Angels, in a French ﬂea market and then there is that French family that found a Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, worth 120 million Euros in their attic, while they were ﬁxing their roof.
The archeologist noticed a museum stamp on the back of the Durer print, looked the print up, found that it had gone missing during World War II and decided to return the work to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, anonymously. I discovered my two pieces of “found art” because ever since I was a small boy I have found heaps of garbage waiting for the truck almost irresistible. At one point I had a basement full of carpets that I had found at various sites while driving around doing errands. One of them would have been worth $10,000 if one of the ends hadn’t rotted. Mostly I peruse trash and flea markets for the opportunity to discover something odd that just might fascinate me. The hope of ﬁnding something that then turns into a treasure is a common trope in folk tales and ﬁction. In the art world collec-tors often hope that the piece of work they purchase from a young artist will one day exponentially rise in value as the artist ﬁnds fame and fortune.
There is something of this, no matter how overblown, in the recent Fletcher versus Doig decision in a Chicago court.
Fletcher is a retired Correctional Service of Canada employee who worked at a prison in Thunder Bay. In 1976 Fletcher bought a painting by a man named Peter Doige for $100, who was in jail for LSD possession. Fletcher said he bought the painting to give Doige a leg up.
Meanwhile the Canadian/British artist Peter Doig was going to high school in Toronto and in the process of becoming a very famous successful artist. Last year, one of his paintings, Swamped, sold at Christie’s for $25.9 million. Somewhere along the line a friend of Fletcher’s suggested to him that his Peter Doige, might actually be a Peter Doig. At that point Fletcher contacted a Chicago dealer named Peter Bartlow and in 2013 they decided to see what they could get for Fletcher’s painting.
Fletcher and Bartlow decided that their Doige was actually a Doig but they needed Peter Doig to authenticate the painting in order to get the big bucks and this Doig refused to do on the grounds that he, in fact, did not paint the painting in question. Stymied in their search for the big jackpot Fletcher and Bartlow then decided to sue Peter Doig on the basis that the only reason Doig refused to authenticate the painting was that he didn’t want to admit to serving jail time.
Undeterred by the fact that education records showed that Peter Doig was attending high school in Toronto at the time the painting was created, Bartlow and Fletcher went ahead with their legal action. During the hearing Peter Doige’s sister stated that her brother painted the picture in question. The judge ruled against Fletcher and Bartlow.
Greed is a powerful force and it must have been at work when Bartlow and Fletcher’s lawyer said that he might appeal the case.
The moral of this story is that when you buy or find a piece of art take it home because you like it and it speaks to you, that it echoes something great about humanity, not because you think it will make you millions. That way lies the twisted path of greed and it demeans the work of art. Noel Meyer