David Bowie Painting Purchased at Landfill for $4 Expected to Fetch Thousands

The rock star created the semi-abstract portrait—up for auction through June 24—in 1997

Portrait by David Bowie
The painting is one of 47 in the pop star's D Heads series. Courtesy of Cowley Abbott

Last summer, an unidentified individual browsing a donation center at the entrance of an Ontario landfill purchased a portrait for $5 CAD (just over $4 USD). Now, the artwork—newly attributed to rock legend David Bowie—is set to sell at auction for thousands of dollars.

As Jan Lakes and Casey Stranges report for CBC News, the painting’s owner contacted Rob Cowley, president of Cowley Abbott auction house, after conducting initial research online.

“There’s a label on the back and it quite clearly identifies the work, so she of course wondered if it could be authentic,” says Cowley to CBC News.

To confirm the portrait’s provenance, Cowley contacted Andy Peters, an authenticator of Bowie’s handwriting and artwork. When Peters saw the canvas, he tells CNN’s David Williams, he “knew what it was straightaway.”

Speaking with CBC News, Cowley adds, “We were able to identify the fact that the work was quite similar to many of the portraits, these smaller-type portraits from this series that Bowie had produced in the mid-’90s.”

Part of the musician’s Dead Heads, or D Head, series, the 1997 painting is up for sale through June 24. Though the work was originally expected to sell for between $9,000 and $12,000 CAD (around $7,350 to $9,800 USD), bidding easily surpassed this estimate on the very first day of the auction. As of press time, the highest bid is $22,100 CAD (around $18,000 USD).

The 9.75- by 8-inch portrait shows a loosely painted head surrounded by swathes of blue and burgundy. Bowie’s signature appears on the back of the canvas alongside a label stating the artist’s name, the work’s title and year of creation, and the materials used (“acrylic and computer collage on canvas,” according to the auction listing).

Numbered XLVI, or 46, the painting is one of 47 in the D Head series. Per a statement, Bowie created the portraits, whose titles “included a non-sequential Roman numeral,” between 1995 and 1997.

David Bowie Painting Purchased at Landfill for $4 Expected to Fetch Thousands
The back of the canvas features the artist's signature and a printed label detailing the portrait's title, year of creation and materials used. Courtesy of Cowley Abbott

“The sitters ranged from band members, friends and acquaintances and there were also some self-portraits,” Cowley Abbott spokeswoman Andrea McLoughlin tells Ben Hooper of United Press International (UPI). “It has been suggested that, for some of these important paintings, Bowie drew inspiration from the Ziggy Stardust era. With long hair and a pronounced profile, this energetic and enigmatic portrait is truly a rare representation from a celebrated artist.”

Born in London in 1947, Bowie was one of the most renowned musicians of the 1970s. Known for his colorful wardrobe and innovative music style, he was “the original performer in a state of constant reinvention, paving the way for Prince, Madonna and Lady Gaga,” as Alan Light wrote for the Hollywood Reporter in 2016. By the time of his death that year at age 69, Bowie had released an incomparable catalog of hits, from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) to Aladdin Sane (1973) to Let’s Dance (1983).

Today, ardent Bowie fans are embracing not only his music, but his visual art. According to Christie’s, which sold a portrait from the D Head series for $27,500 USD in 2018, the pop star attended art school and, later in life, exhibited his paintings, sculptures and prints professionally. Michel Rutten of DailyArt magazine adds that Bowie drew inspiration from the expressive, bold colors of Die Brücke, an early 20th-century German art collective.

The owner of the newly rediscovered portrait isn’t an art collector. As Cowley tells CNN, “the painting itself caught their eye … before they turned it around and saw the labels on the back.” Though such chance finds are a rare occurrence, members of the public occasionally find valuable art in unexpected places.

“Oftentimes it’ll be collectors,” Cowley tells CBC News. “It’ll be people who have an eye for art and know art. And, so they might be looking through the artwork at Goodwill, and they might see something and realize, ‘Oh, that does look to be an original work or a print that has some value.’”

The auctioneer adds, “But sometimes you get these cases where the individual is not a collector and who just sees something that catches their eye, and this was the case here.”