A few months ago, I wrote a piece about a small town in northeast Romania where three individuals, all named Vasile Cepoi, were running for mayor. I discussed the difficulties we face when researching common names and namesakes. Recently I read about an interesting federal civil case in Chicago that further demonstrated these kinds of challenges. The case involved tracking down old records to solve the mystery behind a 40-year-old painting and two similarly named artists.
At the heart of the case was a painting of a desert landscape that was signed “Peter Doige 76.” (Notice the “e” on the end of the surname.) The owner of the painting, Canadian Robert Fletcher, purchased it for $100 in 1976 when he was working at Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in Thunder Bay, Canada. Press reports indicate Fletcher bought the painting from a teenage inmate named Peter Doige who was serving a five-month sentence for LSD possession. Flash forward to the year 2011 by which time Scottish-born Peter Doig was a famous artist with works selling in the millions. (Notice there is no “e” on the end of his surname). Fletcher still had the teenage inmate Peter Doige’s painting hanging on his wall when in 2011, a friend reportedly told him Peter “Doig” was a famous artist.
Fletcher reportedly did his own internet research and noticed similarities in his painting and others by the famous artist, prompting him to contact a Chicago art gallery owner who also researched the painting and believed it to be the work of the famous artist Peter Doig. When the two attempted to get it authenticated, the famous Peter Doig said it was not his painting. In 2013, after continued debate, Fletcher sued the famous artist after he denied painting the desert landscape. Plaintiffs Fletcher and the Chicago art gallery owner sought $7 million in damages alleging the painting would be worth at least that much if it was in fact painted by Doig.
40-year-old High School Records Save the Day
How did the matter even go to trial if the author denied he painted it? Well, there were some coincidences between the two similarly named men. Although born in Scotland, the famous artist moved to Canada in the mid-1960s. He had also admitted to casual LSD use. But there were also differences. Doig claims he grew up in Toronto — hundreds of miles from Thunder Bay — and had never been arrested or served jail time. Doig also purportedly had not become a painter until 1979, and his signature was incorrectly spelled on the painting. But how does one prove where he was 40 years ago? After a trial that ended last month, the judge found in favor of the famous artist after finding there were some key indisputable facts: Doig was able to show through school yearbook photos that he wasn’t serving time in prison in 1976 and also presented as evidence correspondence written by his mom about Doig acting in a high school play during the time in question.
What, I Can’t Use Google to Find that Record?
As researchers and investigators, some cases require us to track down information from decades ago to discover where someone was during a certain time period or to learn more about a corporate structure or civil dispute. Most of the time these records are not available through a simple Google search. Some examples of old records that can yield valuable information include:
- A court opinion or civil complaint we get from court archives that shows the name of a previously unknown witness in a trial or details of a contract dispute
- An old Sanborn map that shows which businesses occupied a certain building that might be important when doing environmental research
- An imaged copy of a corporate filing that shows the corporate structure of a company and lists the names of its officers and directors
- Newspaper clippings from a public library’s archives that show the names and photos of individuals who served on the board of a particular nonprofit
- Building permits that show when someone built an addition to a facility
- Print archives from a local historical society that show who was a member of the local VFW
- An old phone book – yes, from a time when people used telephones in their home and not just cell phones – that might help track down who was living at a particular address long ago and even the neighbors
So as you can see, and as my colleagues Howard Fisher and Andy Davis have pointed out, a Google search is not always enough. Along with not being able to search the items I listed above, the search results might not always be accurate. When it comes down to it, if you want a thorough investigation conducted, you’ll have to find someone that has a few more resources than a Wifi connection and a search engine.