Scottish artist Peter Doig appeared in court in Chicago on Monday (8 August) in an “extremely rare” authenticity case in which he denies painting a desert landscape potentially worth millions of pounds.

Doig is being sued for US$5 million (£3.8 million) by the owner of the painting, former correction officer Robert Fletcher, who accuses Doig of falsely denying that he is the artist responsible for the work. Fletcher claims to have bought the work from Doig in 1976 while the artist was incarcerated in Thunder Bay Correction Center in Canada for US$100 (£76.70). Before becoming his parole officer, he claims to have known Doig when the artist attended Lakehead University in Ontario. Fletcher is said to have purchased the landscape to deter Doig from returning to selling drugs after he was imprisoned on an LSD charge. When Fletcher later attempted to sell the work together with Chicago art dealer Peter Bartlow, Doig refused to authenticate the work. Fletcher and Bartlow filed suit against the artist in 2013 seeking damages and a declaration of authenticity from the court.

Lawyers for Doig deny that he is the creator of the work and that their client has suffered “bullying tactics” at the hands of Fletcher and Bartlow. They claim he never attended Lakehead University and has never been incarcerated. In the year the landscape was painted, Doig says he was living with his parents in Toronto but the plaintiffs’ lawyers are focussing on the lack of hard evidence as to his whereabouts at that time. Doig’s lawyers have identified another man, Peter Edward Doige, who matches the description made by the plaintiffs and the signature on the canvas itself ‘Pete Doige 1976’. Doige died in 2012 but his sister Marilyn Doige Bavard, is expected to testify in court that he attended Lakehead, served time at Thunder Bay and painted as a hobby.

Authenticity disputes are not uncommon in the art world but the case is unusual because the artist is still alive. This is a cause for concern among art law experts including Michael Bennett, a research professor at Arizona State University. Bennett fears that if the suit succeeds, it may mean “a living artist will be displaced as the final authority on authentication and in that artist’s place will now sit a judge or jury”.