David Bowie’s Legacy as an Artist and Collector

Liz Catalano
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In the summer of 2020, a bargain hunter visited a Canadian landfill north of Toronto. The facility happened to run a donation center of salvaged items. Workers cleaned up interesting pieces and presented them in the informal ‘Machar Mall’ for visitors to buy with a small donation. This particular shopper found a blurred figurative painting executed in swirling shades of red, blue, and cream. They bought the piece for CAD 5 (USD 4). Only later did the buyer discover an unusual signature on the reverse, one that looked a lot like David Bowie’s.

That painting recently sold for CAD 108,120 (USD 87,000) at Canadian auction house Cowley Abbott. David Bowie indeed made the painting as part of his D-Head series of the 1990s. Following this remarkable find and auction result, Auction Daily explores David Bowie’s lesser-known identity as an artist and collector.

Front and back of David Bowie’s D-Head XLVI, 1997. Images from Cowley Abbott.
Front and back of David Bowie’s D-Head XLVI, 1997. Images from Cowley Abbott.

Bowie the Artist: D-Head Paintings

The recovered portrait comes from David Bowie’s series of D-Head paintings. Short for ‘Dead Heads,’ these portraits captured the artist’s bandmates and friends. Bowie made dozens of D-Head pieces between 1995 and 1997. One of the heads appeared on the cover of his 1995 Outside album. Bowie stepped forward with his visual art shortly before he released the album. He then ran a few exhibitions in the mid-1990s. This attracted considerable attention, though not necessarily for the reasons Bowie intended. 

“People were interested because he was David Bowie,” said fellow artist and friend Beezy Bailey in a New York Times interview. “He minded that. He wanted to be thought of as a valid artist. But to be taken seriously as a painter when you are a musical genius is virtually impossible.”

This view of Bowie as a singer first and artist second has persisted. Nevertheless, Bowie’s visual works regularly attract buyers at auction. Several of his D-Head paintings have come to market in recent years. Christie’s offered D-Head IX in a 2018 post-war and contemporary art sale. The piece sold for USD 27,500, nearly six times the high estimate. Canadian auction house Cowley Abbott also offered the salvaged D-Head XLVI painting with a relatively low presale estimate. The final price of $87,000 soared past the expected high of $9,700.

David Bowie, D-Head IX, 1995. Image from Christie’s.
David Bowie, D-Head IX, 1995. Image from Christie’s.

Before David Bowie became the image of glam rock and musical experimentation, he studied art and design. This fueled a lifelong interest in the visual arts. Bowie worked closely with the artists designing his album covers and tour sets. Modern and figurative art movements particularly inspired him, including the work of Frank Auerbach and Damien Hirst.

Behind closed doors, Bowie used painting as both a creative tool and a coping mechanism. “I’d find that if I had some creative obstacle in the music that I was working on, I would often revert to drawing it out or painting it out,” Bowie told Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times in 1998. “Somehow the act of trying to recreate the structure of the music in paint or in drawing would produce a breakthrough.”

David Bowie with Peter Howson’s Croatian and Muslim, 1994. Image from Richard Young/ Rex Features.
David Bowie with Peter Howson’s Croatian and Muslim, 1994. Image from Richard Young/ Rex Features.

Bowie the Collector

David Bowie’s interest in visual art extended beyond his paintbrush. He started collecting paintings at an early age and continued to build his collection throughout his career. Bowie tended to keep his buying habits private, even from his artist friends. He managed to accumulate around 400 pieces. 

Bowie’s tastes favored 20th-century British male artists but varied widely across style and medium. He displayed sculptures by Kenneth Armitage alongside paintings by Peter Howson, Harold Gilman, and Peter Lanyon. Bowie’s private collection diversified over time, later including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romuald Hazoumé, and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham

Sotheby’s hosted a three-part auction of Bowie’s private art collection after his death in 2016. The auction house sold around 350 pieces from the collection for a combined sale total of GBP 32.9 million (USD 41.5 million). Sotheby’s did not auction any of Bowie’s own paintings at that time. However, the recovered D-Head portrait that sold in 2021 sparked renewed discussion of David Bowie as a serious visual artist— a result he only dreamed of during his lifetime. 

Auction Daily regularly covers art market news, including sale results, artist profiles, and upcoming events. Check out other headlines from around the auction world in June of 2021.

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