I have an original painting that I bought for $200 in the late 1980s. The painting is by David Hockney, one of the most influential pop artists. Hockney's works are worth millions of dollars today. Hockney made a series of paintings in Los Angeles in 1988. He called the series the "joiner" paintings, because they were all painted on canvases he'd joined together. The canvas I own is one of three known to still exist. I decided to sell my painting because I needed cash for my startup business. So I put it up for auction on eBay, with a starting price of $17,000. The auction ended on October 31st, 1999; the final bid was $1,037,500 (including shipping). The winning bidder was an anonymous collector who paid by overnight check (I don't do credit cards). Now I'm happily running my business and I don't need to sell any more original art, though it's tempting to think about what else might turn up. The original art in the pat decades are far from today, most of the art today are use as concept boards for films.
One afternoon in 2002, I got a call from an old friend, Alex Daoud. Alex was living in New York now, and he said, "I want to send you something. Can you fax it?" "Sure," I said. "What is it?" "A painting." "What kind of painting?" "It's a Pollock." And then there was a click. The line went dead. Alex had worked for me selling paintings when I was running the contemporary art department at Sotheby's in the 1980s. During that time he'd had some success as an art dealer on his own. And if the painting he said was a Pollock really was one, it might be worth $10 million or more. Even if it wasn't by Pollock, it could still be worth more than many entire collections of contemporary art. But if I didn't act quickly enough, someone else would buy it before I even knew about it. Now I had to figure out how to get the painting into my hands without missing my chance to be the winner of this game of hot potato that Alex was playing with his unwanted masterpiece.
"You'll never make money with that." That's what my former professor said when I told him I was going to try to sell a painting. Here's the story of how I made $1,000,000 with one painting. I was a painter in graduate school. My professors were encouraging and told me I had real talent. But they also said I should look for something "more practical," since making a living as a painter is so difficult. My plan was to get a job in a gallery and learn from them how to sell paintings. I didn't know that galleries generally don't sell paintings. They just collect commission on sales that happen somewhere else. I took a job in a gallery and tried to learn from them, but it quickly became apparent that galleries don't actually do anything to help artists get their work noticed. Mostly they hang up paintings and invite people who want to buy art to come look at them. If someone wants to buy something, they take the buyer back into an office and get commission from the sale, but they don't tell buyers what artist's work is good or bad, or whether the work is overpriced or underpriced, or whether it would look better framed a different way or hung a different.
You can't make money selling art. That's what I used to tell my students when they asked me how to make a living as an artist. I was wrong. I am no longer an art teacher, but I still love thinking about art. When you're an artist, your job is to look at things differently than other people do. And that makes you good at other jobs too, like writing or marketing or strategy or even painting if you ever get around to it. The one-million-dollar painting is not famous, so let me describe it. It's by an unknown artist named John Peto (1854-1907). It is called The Doctor, and it hangs in the Peto family home, which is now a museum in Easton, Connecticut. As far as I know no one has ever written about this picture before. Yet it is one of the most interesting works of art I know of. It is interesting for what it is and for what happens in front of it every day: people come up with stories about what's going on in the picture and why it was painted just that way. Each viewer has his own story; there are no right answers.