It was 1994, and Peter Doig was bursting onto the international contemporary art scene. He had been nominated for the U.K.'s Turner Prize that year and invitations for exhibitions rolled in. One of them, from Gavin Brown's Enterprise gallery, would hand him his solo debut in New York.
The Scottish-born painter wanted to make a splash and personally selected Jetty, which was painted in Toronto that year, to anchor the show. To ensure its inclusion, he stuffed the enormous painting – it's 2.5 metres wide – into a small truck and drove it himself to Manhattan from Toronto.
The painting was a hit, found a mystery buyer and disappeared from view until surfacing at a Tate Britain retrospective in 2008. It will reappear at a Christie's auction in London on the evening of June 25, where it could very well set a record not just for a Doig work, but for a living European artist. "I would hope it can break the record," said Francis Outred, Christie's head of postwar and contemporary art for Europe. "But that will depend on how bidders respond to the image."
The guide price for Jetty is £4-million to £6-million ($6.4-million to $9.5-million), but estimated values for an artist of Doig's stature are pretty much meaningless. The hammer price of some of his paintings is sometimes several times the auctioneer's estimate. In 2007, his White Canoe went for an astonishing £5.7-million – five times the predicted price – at a Sotheby's sale. At the time, it was a record for a living European artist.
At least one of his paintings, The Architect's Home in the Ravine, which depicts the Rosedale, Toronto, home of star architect Eberhard Zeidler, designer of the Toronto Eaton Centre, nailed a higher price – £6.8-million – at Christie's February auction. The same painting was bought at auction in 2007 for £2.7-million. Five years earlier, Charles Saatchi, the renowned art collector and sponsor of the YBAs – Young British Artists – had bought it for £280,000. Its value soared 2,300 per cent in 11 years.
It seems no accident that Doig's Canadian-themed paintings from the first half of the 1990s are getting lavish prices. Outred, of Christie's, thinks that era was "his finest period, when the highest volume of top-level works was produced."
Doig, the son of an evidently restless Scottish accountant, was born in Edinburgh in 1959, moved to Trinidad in 1962, where his father worked at a shipping company, then to Canada in 1966. He left home when he was 17 and worked as a roughneck with a gas-drilling crew in the West. He stayed in Canada until 1979, when he returned to Britain to study at the Wimbledon School of Art and, later, the Saint Martins School of Art. He lived in Canada again from 1986 to 1989 and moved to Trinidad in 2002, which is now his home.
The paintings inspired by his Canadian years stem from Doig's desire to relive and interpret the landscapes of his youth. He turns the landscapes into dreamy visions, though they are not abstracts.
Jetty is one of those dreams. It depicts a simple scene: a long figure on a dock, a canoe on the lake in the near distance, the lake surrounded by mountains and the rich colours of an Indian summer. It was inspired by a postcard that depicts Cameron Lake in Alberta. Outred says Jetty displays "incredible understanding of paint, both as a liquid and a solid. ...You see an artist who has taken a lot of risks. In the last 10 years, he has been more stripped back."
Doig himself does not like to comment on the value of his art and apparently is not flattered by his extraordinary commercial success. In a 2008 interview with The Observer, shortly after the sale of White Canoe, he said the record price "made me feel sick, really. I'm talking about nauseous sick, not so much disgusted or anything. That someone should have put their hand in their pocket and spent that much money on a painting of mine seemed so unconnected to anything that I ever did."
In two weeks, Doig may feel sick again when an art collector or museum with obscene amounts of money will bid up Jetty to a potentially unheard-of price for a living artist. It is widely known that Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario covets a Doig, but the auction may get too rich for its acquisitions budget. It would be a pity if this Canadian-inspired masterpiece were locked away by a private collector for another 20 years.