A David Bowie painting that originally sold for just less than $5 at a Canadian landfill has set a new auction record for the artist and musician. The work has sold for a cool CA$108,120 ($87,789), including fees, at Toronto’s Cowley Abbott auction house.
“I think a big part of the interest in the painting is the story of the acquisition,” Rob Cowley, chairman of Cowley Abbott, told Artnet News of the record-breaking work. “And then there are a lot of collectors who didn’t realize that David Bowie was also a visual artist… there’s a lot excitement around the artwork.”
Titled DHead XLVI (1997), the painting turned up outside South River, Ontario, last summer, at the Machar Township landfill. When people drop off their trash there, they can also leave unwanted objects at the dump donation center. Residents can pay what they wish to take home items from what’s locally referred to as the Machar Mall.
“The consignor arrived at the center, saw it against the wall, picked it up and liked it, and purchased it,” Cowley said.
The canvas is from the artist’s “Dead Heads” series, of which there are believed to be between 40 and 50 paintings. The semi-abstract portraits of Bowie’s friends, family members and bandmates date from the mid-1990s.
Today’s sale smashed Bowie’s existing sale record. That was set in March 2016—shortly after the star’s unexpected death from liver cancer that January—with a £22,500 ($31,725) sale of a painting from the same series at Lyon and Turnbull in Edinburgh, according to the Artnet Price Database. Another “Dead Heads” canvas sold for $27,500 at Christie’s Online in 2018.
Bowie also became an auction sensation with the sale of his personal art collection at Sotheby’s New York in 2016 bringing in a total of $30 million. That same year, a lock of the singer’s hair fetched $18,750 on a $4,000 estimate.
But Cowley was still conservative with the pre-sale estimate for DHead XLVI, setting it at just CA$9,000 to CA$12,000 CSD ($7,381 to $9,841).
“Taking into account the entire market for these paintings that had arrived at auction, there were other works that had been selling at the $10,000 level and even below that,” Cowley said. “And a work by David Bowie had never even been offered in Canada.”
The anonymous consignor had been skeptical about the work’s authorship when she reached out to Cowley Abbott about its potential sale.
“They thought the chances of it being authentic were low, because why would it be in the place where they found it?” Cowley added.
A printed label on the back of DHead XLVI attributed the piece to Bowie, but site employees had not picked up on its apparent ties to the rock star who sang “Heroes,” “Rebel Rebel,” and other hits.
“We never thought of [it as] anything special,” Johnny Kirschner, the coordinator at Machar landfill, told Fr24 News. “We cleaned it up, put it against the wall, and didn’t think about it.”
Enter Bowie expert Andy Peters, a collector of the musician’s memorabilia since 1978. When contacted by Cowley Abbott, he immediately recognized the work from having seen it on a website selling Bowie’s artwork in the early 2000s.
“When I first saw the painting, I knew what it was straightaway,” Peters told CNN.
Further investigations confirmed it. The label was from a now-defunct London framing company, John Jones Art Centre, that did work for Bowie and other celebrity artists. And there was a record of its original sale from the official Bowie website back in 2001 for £2,300 ($3,247).
“It had a trail back to the hands of the artist,” Cowley said. How it wound up in Canada, let alone a landfill donation center, remains a mystery.
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