'D-Head XLVI', a David Bowie painting that sold for a record Can$90,100 (£52,690) at Cowley Abbott.

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Is there a boom taking place for works by rockstars-turned-artists? A few recent sales have suggested this may well be the case, although it appears they need to have gained legendary status in their own profession first before the art market begins to take much interest.

The most prominent recent result came at an eventful sale in Canada where a major auction record was set for a painting by David Bowie (1947-2016).

Any work with a Bowie provenance has cachet – Sotheby’s momentous sale of his collection in November 2016 certainly proved that – but the singer-writer’s own works have also been on the rise commercially too for some time. This latest sale at Cowley Abbott (20% buyer’s premium) in Toronto took Bowie’s prices to a new level.

Prolific producer

In his biography of Bowie, Christopher Sandford noted that the singer was “a prolific producer and collector of contemporary art”. He had studied art and design as a young man and regularly sketched while on tour. He also painted a good number of fully worked-up pictures, especially in the latter part of his career.

Although his drawings, pastels and prints come to auction fairly regularly, very few original paintings have emerged since his death five years ago. One appeared at Christie’s New York in an online sale in December 2018: D-Head IX from 1995 which made $22,000 (£17,406). This price underlined the serious growth in the market – the same work had sold for £1500 in 2007 at Christie’s in London.

The painting in Canada was part of the same Dead Heads (or D-Head) series of Expressionist-style canvases in which Bowie depicted band members, friends and acquaintances (there were also a few self-portraits).

Produced in the mid-1990s and running to around 40-50 paintings in all, these works were done in acrylic and were all numbered with a Roman numeral. They had a certain Baconesque quality including the faces at times being rather indistinct.


Rob Cowley, owner and president of Cowley Abbott, with the Bowie picture that had been acquired by the vendor for £3 from a local tip.

The 9¾ x 8in (25 x 20cm) acrylic and computer collage on canvas here, D-Head XLVI, came to auction with an extraordinary backstory.

The vendor had purchased it for just Can$5 (about £3) from a local rubbish tip in South River, Ontario. It is not known who was the previous owner nor how it came to be discarded, nor how it came to Canada originally.

Expert help

Signed, titled and dated 1997 on the reverse, the auction house contacted Bowie expert Andy Peters, a long-term collector of the musician’s memorabilia, on receiving the consignment. Peters recognised the work immediately and traced it back to its original sale through the official Bowie website in 2001 for £2300.

The label for framing company John Jones Art Centre, the services of which Bowie used along with other celebrity artists, further helped bolster the attribution.

The work had an energetic style and colouring which had overtones to the self-portrait that appears on the cover of Bowie’s 1995 album Outside, and this seems to have lent it a bit of extra commercial appeal compared to other works in the series.

Estimated at Can$9000-12,000, it drew strenuous competition and was knocked down at Can$90,100 (£52,690) to an American private collector. The price was almost three times the previous auction high for an individual work by Bowie, although it had been about 18 months since the last example from the D-Head series had been available.

As with other assets, a bounce for Bowie appears to have occurred in the period of global lockdown.

£1 = Can$1.71

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