Culture Etc. Listicles

Ashes to Cashes

Take a little trip into the Gagosian galaxy.

The transactional entity that ‘big money art’ – let’s call it Amex Art – has become seems a little crass, especially in the instances where artists died unrecognised or destitute. But how many artists who now exist within the sphere of today’s Amex Art world died without critical or commercial success?

Contrary to the stereotype of the struggling artist, few cash cows actually died in a state of unsuccessfulness. The following is a taxonomy of history’s most interesting exceptions, all of which have artworks selling for more than a million dollars now, yet died with their reputation in tatters, or no reputation at all.

Key – Impoverishment level:

1 is living in luxury → 10 is living, and dying, in lice-ridden oblivion



WHO Salaì (real name: Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno)

WHY The famed naughty apprentice and (underage) lover of da Vinci, Salaí was the first hype boy. Salaí came from poverty to work as an apprentice and model (see the naked Mona Lisa, Monna Vanna) for Leo. He never sold any of his own paintings in his lifetime, focusing on his master’s works instead. Now, very few paintings attributed to Salaí exist, which, combined with his proximity to da Vinci, means they are worth a bomb.


NOW SELLS La Madeleine Pénitente realised £1,747,497 at Artcurial in Paris in 2020.


281 trillion DogeBonk Coins.


dutch baroque/dutch golden age


WHO Johannes Vermeer

WHY Vermeer achieved only modest success in his lifetime. Despite dedicating himself to his art, only 34 known works are attributed to him, which exemplifies both his meticulous dedication to his craft and his almost total lack of business sense – producing a mere three paintings a year. Thanks to an enormous loan, the tanking of the Dutch economy and an early death, he died in debt, leaving his large family ruined. His works faded into obscurity for more than 200 years.


NOW SELLS A Young Woman Seated At The Virginals sold for £25,417,044 at Sotheby’s London, in 2004.


11,062 litres of printer ink or 148,608 litres of 2006 vintage Dom Pérignon.



WHO William Blake

WHY Considered mad by his contemporaries, teased while working by schoolchildren and remaining steadfastly misunderstood and comparatively unsuccessful throughout his lifetime, Blake
is considered a pioneer of the Romantic movement. His revolutionary spirit meant he continued his prolific output despite an absence of acclaim for his
personal works.


NOW SELLS The Good and Evil Angels Struggling For Possession of a Child achieved £3,312,855 at Sotheby’s New York in 2004


Eight-bedroom detached house in Peckham Rye




WHO Camille Claudel

WHY Claudel was a student and lover of the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Despite her genius, she didn’t have acclaim, so she depended on Rodin to cultivate commissions or collaborated with him while he got most of the credit. After her father’s death she depended on Rodin financially but he cut her off when she made a sculpture he didn’t like. Her brother withheld her inheritance and she wandered
the streets in ‘beggars’ clothing’. She destroyed a number of her works and accused Rodin of ‘stealing her ideas and of leading a conspiracy to kill her.’ Her brother committed her to a psychiatric hospital; she was trapped in the Montdevergues Asylum until she died.


NOW SELLS La Valse realised £6,763,238
at Sotheby’s London in 2013


The spacious 1,312-bed Montdevergues Asylum and the skills of Samuel D. Ingham – the lawyer assigned to Britney Spears’ conservatorship case.




WHO Vincent Van Gogh
WHY The only painting he is known to have sold while alive, despite his art dealer brother, Theo’s, best efforts is The Red Vineyard, which he sold for the equivalent of about £16. He first discovered the vineyard during Paul Gauguin’s notoriously disastrous stay where Vincent ended up cutting off his ear like the defeated bulls he’d watch in the ring. He died penniless having shot himself in the chest.

NOW SELLS Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet (sold in 1990 for £70 million) is currently valued at £128 million.
FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT The complete works of Gauguin




WHO Alfred Sisley

WHY Despite being accepted into the Paris Salon and moving in the same circles as Renoir, Sisley received neither critical nor commercial success at the time or in subsequent exhibitions. Shortly after the Salon, his father cut him off and he had to support himself off his paintings, which meant he lived and died of throat cancer in poverty.

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