Sotheby’s to Auction a Real Drawing By a Fictional Artist

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Courtesy of Sotheby's

Auction house Sotheby’s will sell a painting by an artist who never existed. This raises all kinds of questions.

For example, is a hoax really a hoax if everyone is in on it? Should a drawing be worth less, or more, if it’s done by a character in a fake biography? If Sotheby’s and potential buyers are complicit in pretending that the artist is real, is the auction in itself a kind of performance art?

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It all started with a book party. In 1998, David Bowie invited some of his famous friends to Jeff Koons’ Manhattan studio to celebrate the release of the biography Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, written by William Boyd. Before the party, a few of them had decided to pretend that Nat Tate was a real person, and people were fooled for a few days — until it got out that the whole book was made up.

Boyd, who never intended for his book to be called a hoax, wrote in the Guardian that the situation started spinning out of control. A film was made about the hoax. Boyd was invited to speak about the hoax. It wasn’t anything he had envisioned. If the fictional Nat Tate could sell an artwork for real money, Boyd said, perhaps the phenomenon could reach “apotheosis and consummation.”

Another big question: Who illustrated this work up for auction? Was it Boyd? The smudges on the paper that appear to be fingerprints are a cheeky touch. The work, “Bridge No. 114,” is estimated to sell for $4,700 to $7,900. Proceeds will go to a charity, the Artist’s Benevolent Institution.