David Bowie art from Ontario landfill sets $50K auction record, but some locals aren't happy with the fame
Some from the small community of South River fear an influx of treasure hunters following rare find
A painting by David Bowie that was purchased at a northern Ontario landfill's donation centre for $5 has set a global record for the late British musician's work at over $50,000, with a week to go before the auction ends.
As of midday Friday, the bid for DHEAD XLVI was at $50,100 Cdn, and the auction is set to end June 24. The previous record of $27,500 US (about $34,000 Cdn) was for a Bowie work at a Christie's auction in 2018.
The painting was picked up at a donation centre at the landfill in Machar Township, just outside the town of South River. The rare find is turning out to be a gold mine for the owner, whose identity hasn't been made public, but is also unnerving for some local residents.
Rob Cowley, president of Cowley Abbott, the Toronto-based group handling the auction, said the diminutive painting — at 20 by 25 centimetres — has been drawing international attention since it went on sale Tuesday, partly because of the interest in how the work was discovered.
"I think the story behind the painting certainly is playing a role," Cowley told CBC Sudbury. "However, the painting itself is a beautiful portrait, in my opinion, and obviously in others' opinions, as well."
The improbable discovery has generated a lot of interest in Bowie's artwork, and plenty of buzz around this particular auction, he said.
"It's incredible for us to see how many individuals are discovering that David Bowie was a visual artist," Cowley added.
Iconic singer gained fame as an artist
Bowie, born Jan. 8, 1947, was known for albums including The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane, Let's Dance and the Grammy-winning Blackstar, released two days before his death in 2016.
As well as an artist himself, he was a noted art collector.
In the mid-1990s, Bowie painted a series of "semi-abstract" DHEAD works, Cowley said.
"To have a story that's so accessible and so universal when it relates to such an iconic figure ... makes it highly accessible to the general public, to many individuals who wouldn't necessarily pay attention to the fine art world or the auction world.
"It just creates a larger audience for us to discuss our work as well, which is, of course, highly rewarding."
How the painting came to be at a landfill roughly 300 kilometres north of Toronto may never be known, Cowley said.
"It's impossible to know whether it was a house clearing, or an estate situation or what have you. But we know that the painting was sold through an official David Bowie website in 2001 or 2002."
At that time, Cowley said, the painting was purchased for 2,300 pounds (about $4,000 Cdn).
"But we have no idea who bought it, or where it ended up, whether it came to Canada then or whether it moved through three owners' hands, for all we know.
"But that gives us at least a starting point in terms of its history."
A journey to the Machar Mall
Johnny Kirschner, co-ordinator of the Machar landfill, said he and his co-workers didn't think much of the painting when it came through the site.
"We never thought anything special of it," he said. "We cleaned it up, put it against the wall and didn't think anything of it."
People dropping material off at the landfill can leave items that still have some use. Items are arranged along a wall outside the landfill office. For a small donation, anyone can cart away as much as they like.
Locals call it the Machar Mall.
"It didn't catch my eye, but it caught someone else's," Kirschner said.
He said he wasn't going to guess where the painting came from, but a lot of visitors to the landfill are cleaning up relatives' cottages or getting older houses ready for sale.
"That's a lot of what we get around here," he said. "A lot of older people pass away, and then their kids come in and they just want to clean it out and get the house right up for sale or to take over it or whatnot.
"Who knows, with the older people up here, what they have or what they don't have."
Searching for a treasure
Although the landfill is generally steady with traffic, Kirschner said plenty of people seem to be looking for the next treasure, and there's a heightened interest in what's available at the mall.
It's an opportunity for the landfill team to have a bit of fun with people dropping off their trash, too.
"People will come up with something like a chair, and we'll say, 'Oh, did David Bowie sit in that?'
But the increase in traffic doesn't sit right with some of the locals.
Fred Disomma, operator of the Eagle Lake Country Store, said some cottagers and year-round residents are concerned about how the painting ended up in the tiny community.
He's also met a few people, curiosity seekers, looking for the next big find at the landfill.
It would be kind of nice if some of the money from the auction was kicked back to the community, or to give something back in the area.- Fred Disomma, operator of Eagle Lake Country Store
"We've got a couple of calls from people that we're concerned about that, hoping that it wouldn't result in an increase in people hoping to find treasures," Disomma said.
"Machar Township is kind of like a hidden gem," he said. "You know, [locals] just don't want to be in the spotlight."
Disomma said news of the Bowie painting going for tens of thousands was a bit unsettling.
"I guess like everyone else, I was just curious as to the origins of the painting, and a little sad because I figured it was probably from the sale of a place, and someone had not known what it was and thrown everything out."
He also hopes the consignor of the painting remembers the community after the auction has wrapped up.
"It would be kind of nice if some of the money from the auction was kicked back to the community, or to give something back in the area."
Still, Disomma said he didn't want to appear like he was sour about the discovery.
"I guess from a business point of view, I probably shouldn't complain because there may be some increased traffic," he said.
"But at the same time, we're pretty happy without all that attention."