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.

FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT 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.

FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT 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.

FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT 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.

FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT 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.


NOW SELLS Effet De Neige Á Louveciennes sold for $9,064,835 at Sotheby’s London in 2017.

FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT Lifetime funding for the ‘Renoir sucks at painting’ movement.



WHO Émile Henri Bernard

WHY Bernard was eclipsed (as was often the case) by Gaugin, despite many believing that Bernard’s style was a profound influence on Gaugin’s own (Gaugin travelled around with works by Bernard). But Gaugin never cited Bernard as an influence, and, like Bernard’s comrade van Gogh, never achieved success in his lifetime so became a teacher.


NOW SELLS Bretonnes ramassant des pommes, achieved $1,940,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2019.

FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT Chartered ten day cruise around Tahiti on a super yacht.



WHO Amedeo Modigliani

WHY Lived in often freezing Parisian squalor, loved drink, coke, hash and women – Modigliani is King of the Fleabags. Modigliani dedicated his life to his art and compromised his health and his comfort in order to pursue his vision, despite selling few works during his lifetime. Modigliani had the occasional patronage of Edith Sitwell’s brother, Sacheverell Sitwell, who tried, without success, to introduce Modigliani to the UK art market. Called ‘Modi’, some joked it should’ve been ‘maudit’ – accursed. He died of the tuberculosis that had plagued him for life. Jeanne Hébuterne, his young mistress, then eight months pregnant with a second child, killed herself.


NOW SELLS Nu couché, sold for $157 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2018.




WHO Giorgio de Chirico

WHY Despite great success with his early career metaphysical works, as his style evolved into neo-Baroque his work was neither commercially nor critically successful. He resented this so much that he began producing self-forgeries from earlier periods to make money and as ‘fuck you’ to his detractors. As a further ‘fuck you’ to the art world, he denounced many of his earlier works in both public private collections, calling them forgeries.


NOW SELLS Il Pomeriggio Di Arianna, sold for $5,890,400 at Sotheby’s New York in 2020.

FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT Wu Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.


abstract expressionism/neo expressionism/cartoon

WHO Philip Guston

WHY A lifetime activist, Guston began his career producing figurative murals depicting racism and anti-Semitism (at least one of which was defaced by police). Guston had great critical and commercial success as a first generation abstract expressionist but denounced it, calling American Ab Ex “miserly” and “a sham”. Instead, he created much-disparaged figurative cartoons of evil that ruined his reputation. Guston withdrew from the art world, and despite trying to incorporate abstraction into his representational works, never regained the success of his earlier career while alive. 


NOW SELLS To Fellini realised $25,883,750 at Christie’s New York in 2013.

FOR WHAT THEY COULD’VE BOUGHT His earlier Ab Ex works.


pop art

WHO Pauline Boty

WHY Boty enjoyed a degree of success, exhibiting with the likes of William Blake early in their careers. But she died young, meaning she never achieved the same notoriety as Blake or the op-art legend Briget Riley, whose work Boty’s once featured alongside. A tumour was discovered during Boty’s pregnancy, which she refused treatment for, and died a few months after giving birth, aged 28. Her paintings were stored in a barn by her brother for 30 years and forgotten about until the 21st century.


NOW SELLS With Love to Jean-Paul Belmondo, sold for $1,408,411 at Sotheby’s London in 2022.


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