Stranger than fiction…Authenticity and Intrigue

Posted on: September 4, 2016 by

Two fascinating stories from the art world have captured our imagination over the past couple of weeks. Whilst seemingly unrelated, both have the thorny issue of authorship and authenticity at their heart and, coincidentally, share a Scottish connection.

The first is the news that Scottish artist, Peter Doig, has won his court battle against a former prison official, Peter Fletcher, who sued him for his disavowal of a painting Fletcher claimed Doig had painted during a spell in prison in 1976.

The second is that a Scottish journalist, Craig Williams, claims to have unveiled the ‘real Banksy’ –  an assertion which, we can be sure, will not go unchallenged.

The Doig story is intriguing, concerning and disconcerting in equal measure. Peter Fletcher, the corrections officer, claimed that he had bought the landscape painting from Doig for $100 in 1976. His story was that the artist was serving a sentence for a drugs offence at the Correctional Centre in Ontario, where Fletcher was working. He filed the suit in 2013 after Doig refused to authenticate the painting when Fletcher and art dealer Peter Bartlow tried to sell it. Fletcher and Bartlow claimed $5m in damages and a declaration that the painting was authentic. This would have put a hefty price tag on the work in light of recent sales of Doig’s paintings – nearly $26m at auction last year for Swamped, a painting of a moonlit white canoe, for example. Doig insisted that he had never been in prison and was not using that kind of canvas in 1976.

Moreover, the signature on the painting was ‘Pete Doige’ – who, as it transpires, was another individual, himself adept with a paintbrush, and whose sister was able to give persuasive evidence that the painting was indeed the work of her late brother.

So it seems that, in the end, this was a case of mistaken identity. But the case will no doubt send ripples of disquiet through the art world. Authenticity disputes are not especially unusual  per se; but they generally concern past masters who have long departed these mortal shores, and not living artists who are able to verify or refute their authorship of a work. While Peter Doig was evidently relieved at the court’s decision, he felt that justice was “way too long in coming”, adding the comment: “That a living artist has to defend the authorship of his own work should never have come to pass.”

The idea that an artist’s declaration of authenticity about his own work should not be the final say on the matter, and should end up as a question for a court of law, is somewhat worrisome for artists. Courts have generally (and many would say, rightly)  been shy to opine on matters they consider better resolved by experts in the field. As early as 1903, the US Supreme Court felt it would be “a dangerous undertaking for persons trained only to the law to constitute themselves final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations”.

In more recent times, courts have generally been reluctant to attach legal consequences to statements about the authorship of works of art. And understandably so. The law on relevant matters, such as the sale of goods, has not been designed to accommodate the complexities and nuances of the art world. The terms that this body of law implies to protect buyers of ‘mis-sold goods’ simply don’t translate well into guarantees about paintings or other works of art. More often than not, the answers to questions about authenticity are far from black and white. Many great and ‘authentic’ works are the product of collaborative effort, for example, where a master painter delegates the working of detail to junior members of the studio working under supervision. Not every stroke of a brush is necessarily made by the master’s own hand for a work to be authentic….which brings me on to the latest Banksy story.

Banksytruck (1)

Photo credit: Bitboy: ‘Signature Probably Banksy’ via Wikimedia Commons

Turning on its head a recent theory that Banksy’s real identity is former public schoolboy Robin Gunningham, journalist Craig Williams claims that, in fact, ‘he’ may actually be a group of artists including Robert Del Naja, a member of the band Massive Attack. Williams’ research follows the band over at least 15 years and charts the intriguing appearance of Banksy works alongside their various gigs around the world.

It would be hard to know where to begin with any potential authenticity claim in relation to a Banksy; or, for that matter, any artistic expression whose value lies, to some extent, in the mystery behind its creation.

Williams concludes: “Perhaps the assertion, then, that Banksy is just one person is wide of the mark, instead being a group who have, over the years, followed Massive Attack around and painted walls at their leisure”. Perhaps there are alternative explanations, and, no doubt, others will add their thoughts into the mix. Maybe even Banksy himself (themselves?!) will give us some further clues. Stranger things have happened…