Let's go ahead and conduct a test. I'll buy a handful of paintings from the cheapest spots in town - either a run-of-the-mill flea market, someone's garage sale, or even my 3 year old nephew's preschool classroom - give them a bravado title and extraordinary story, and then sell them in one of the famous auction houses of the world. My guess? With the right mis-attribution, these works could sell for at least $100,000.
Don't just take my word for it! The following are 10 examples of paintings that would be considered junk if they were sold at an ordinary garage sale, but because of their extravagant history, descriptions and estimated value, were sold for millions to the highest bidder:
1 - Concetto spaziale, Attese by Lucio Fontana - $1.5 Million
Concetto spaziale, Attese was sold for 1.5 Million at an auction in London. The artist's forte seems to be blank, colored canvas with slashes in between, which often sell for more than 1 million dollars. And so, this brings us to the million dollar question: if the collector wishes for his 'investment' to appreciate more quickly, should he take matters into his own hands and cut one more slash? Is it the more slashes, the better the quality?
2 - Blood Red Mirror by Gerhard Richter - $1.1 Million
Mirror Painting (Blood Red) was sold for 1.1 Million. While I actually appreciate the rest of Gerhard Richter's work, I struggle to make sense of this particular one. Is it really just red paint in a slight gradient on a mirror? Perhaps the collector who bought it just wanted to see themselves in a bit more color when looking in the mirror.
3 - Green White by Ellsworth Kelly - $1.6 Million
Green White by Ellsworth Kelly was sold for 1.6 Million. In my opinion, most of Ellsworth Kelly's work wouldn't sell for much even at a garage sale, but this piece is a particular gem. Yes, for those of you wondering, this is just a canvas with a misshapen circle in the middle, and yes, someone did pay enough to buy a small Thai island for the privilege of placing it in their collection.
4 - Untitled (1961) by Mark Rothko - $28 Million
Untitled (1961) by Mark Rothko sold for more than $28 Million at auction. 'Ugly' seems like an overstatement, but 'boring' seems to hit the nail on the head. If your kid ended up bringing this home after spending a year in art school, would you: A) Be proud and hang it in place of the TV, or B) Tell them, "Nice job sweetie! Next time let's make it look like something!"
5 - Untiled (Stoffbild) by Blinky Palermo - $1.7 Million
Untiled (Stoffbild) sold for $1.7 Million at auction. 'Untitled', like the rest of Palermo's work, is a layering of color canvases next to each other. Even though I stared at this for over an hour for inspiration of something to say, I've got nothing. I guess I never properly learned the art of bullshitting in college. However, this art critic who describes it, clearly did: "Palermo's cloth pictures offer little, if any, variation in tone and reveal no traces of painterly nuance or inflection across their surfaces; they instead afford the viewer a strictly optical experience of pure, undiluted color." Bravo - it's just awesome that he was able to take a description of the lack of variation in the work and make it seem like a positive thing. Go spin master!
6 - Peinture (Le Chien) by Joan Miro - $2.2 Million
Peinture (Le Chien) by Joan Mira sold for over $2.2 Million at auction. While I actually am a fan of lots of Miro's work, this one really seems to be an anomaly. I can't help but think the collector who bought it just wanted a piece of the Miro legacy, when not even Miro's mother would have hung it on her wall. ;)
7 - White Fire I by Barnett Newman - $3.8 Million
White Fire I by Barnett Newman was purchased for $3.8 Million. Ok - I'm confused. Clearly, the people that are buying these paintings are extraordinarily wealthy. In general, wealthy people become wealthy because they are intelligent. If that's they case, then why did the so-called intelligent collector who bought this work buy into this description? "The title White Fire is a mystical term that relates directly to the Torah. As such it clearly invokes a profound sense of the spiritual that Newman sought to instill in the viewers of his paintings." Really? Two lines on a blank canvas mystically relates directly to the Torah?!
8 - Untitled by Cy Twombly - $2.3 Million
Untitled by Cy Twombly sold for 2.3 Million at Christie's auction house. This work is literally house paint and wax crayon on paper, i.e. the same material that a child learning to write would use in kindergarten. If you squint a little, doesn’t the work kinda look like a 5 year old practicing writing an "e"?
9 - Cowboy by Ellsworth Kelly - $1.7 Million
Cowboy by Ellsworth Kelly sold for $1.7 Million at auction. Perhaps Kelly's history symbolizes to me what seems to be so out of wack with the art world. Kelly studied art for more than four years, both at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and in Paris, before deciding on the style for his own work. After all this study, he decided to create a style which was basically blocks on canvas. To an untrained eye, one might consider that to be a bad choice, since how valuable are blocks on paper? However, I stand corrected - economically, it seems he picked the right style. Aesthetically? Maybe not so much.
10 - Blue Fool by Christopher Wool - $5 Million
I don't think there could be a more perfect work to wrap up this post than Blue Fool, which sold for a little more than 5 million at auction. I can't help but think that Christopher, who specializes in painting words on canvas, had a great laugh when this particular piece sold. When he started out, did he ever think that he could convince someone to buy a work that implies they are a fool for purchasing it? If you did, Christopher, then kudos to you, wherever you are!
About the author: Naysawn Naderi is the founder of ArtSumo.com. Art Sumo makes it possible to purchase original paintings for less than $500. We scour the continents to find amazing artists and we make new paintings available to you each week. Please browse our stock of available original paintings and sign up for weekly updates below.