David Bowie’s great hoax

On David Bowie’s private art collection, and the great hoax he and Jeff Koons played on art critics


David Bowie featured in Sotheby’s Bowie/Collector. Photo: Jimmy King/Images courtesy of The David Bowie Archive
David Bowie featured in Sotheby’s Bowie/Collector. Photo: Jimmy King/Images courtesy of The David Bowie Archive

David Bowie the art collector is surprising—not for the fact that he collected art, but for the depth that is reflected in his collection. Eleven months after his sudden death from cancer, a large part of his private art collection, comprising over 350 pieces, was auctioned by Sotheby’s in London on 10-11 November. In a special edition catalogue, historian Dominic Sandbrook writes that a journalist once contacted the singer- actor seeking an interview about his famous art collection, especially his Surrealists and pre-Raphaelites. Bowie turned him down—no Salvador Dali or Edward Burne-Jones in his collection, he said. His is not the kind of art that one would expect a flamboyant singer to be surrounded by. Sure, there is, for instance, a Damien Hirst or two—including a spin painting that Bowie created along with an awe-struck Hirst—but rather than the fashionable artists to collect, Bowie’s eclectic collection reflects the connection he felt for certain artists—David Bomberg, Peter Lanyon, Ettore Sottsass and his Memphis collection, sculptor Glynn Williams, from whom he commissioned an acrobatic sculpture to be placed on his wedding cake when he married the model Iman. A “disappointingly tasteful” art collection, The Guardian has concluded.

Sitting, Holding, Looking: By Glynn Williams
Sitting, Holding, Looking: By Glynn Williams

Yet, David Bowie the art enthusiast doesn’t disappoint in his anecdotal power. In the 1990s, Bowie was part of the high-power editorial board of the art magazine Modern Painters, enthusiastically offering ideas, conducting interviews, and writing stories. While here, he and fellow member of the editorial board, writer William Boyd, pulled off the most phenomenal hoax of the art world. Boyd writes in a piece for the catalogue that he had written a fictional piece inventing an Abstract-Expressionist American painter Nat Tate. The mischievous Bowie suggested they publish this as an illustrated monograph: Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960; Bowie even wrote a blurb for it claiming to own a Tate. The monograph was launched with much fanfare on April Fool’s day in 1998 at co-conspirator Jeff Koons’ Soho studio, with Bowie impassively reading from the book, keeping up the facade. A few of the art snobs invited, not wanting to seem ignorant, even claimed to have heard of Nat Tate. The joke would have carried on longer if a journalist, a few days later, hadn’t got wind of the affair and published an expose.

Beautiful, halo, space-boy painting: By Damien Hirst with David Bowie
Beautiful, halo, space-boy painting: By Damien Hirst with David Bowie

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