Bob Ross’s First Ever TV Painting Has Been Listed at $9.8 Million, But Is it All a Gallery’s Ploy to Boost the Painter’s Market?


American television icon Bob Ross was celebrated for his honest, democratic approach to painting. In contrast, the gallery that has become a primary vendor for his paintings appears to be employing somewhat disingenuous tactics.

The Minneapolis-based gallery, Modern Artifact, recently listed Ross’s first creation for his breakout TV series at $9.85 million. But then, again, not really. Gallery owner Ryan Nelson has said the painting is not for sale and that he would rather it was displayed before the masses at museums.

The gallery acquired (1983) from a PBS volunteer who bought it at a charity auction. While inflation may be touching every corner of the American economy, the price seems excessive given Ross’s paintings have seldom breached the six-figure mark. It may well be a ploy to boost Ross’s market value from the gallery that has become the go-to purveyor his works, with 46 previously sold paintings listed on its website. Modern Artifact did not respond to multiple requests to comment.

The work painted for the debut episode in 1983 is standard Ross fare: a naturalistic scene of trees, a rocky path, the sky, and a pond with the Florida man’s first name scrawled in red across the bottom left corner. Is it a great painting? Not really. The perspective of the path is askew, the purplish hue of the underbrush overpowers, and the water is seemingly airdropped from the Caribbean.

Of course, Ross’s 30-minute paintings weren’t intended to be great pieces set to fetch millions of dollars in sales—at this point it’s worth asking, where does the oddly precise number come from? Why not simply round up to $10 million?—but rather works that educated and entertained.

Although Ross sold countless paintings while serving in the Air Force in Alaska, it was not a concern during his decade-long presence on public television. In fact, it was the paints, art supplies, and merchandise he sold through Bob Ross Inc. that proved money makers.

“Bob’s true passion was not in selling his paintings,” Joan Kowalski, President of Bob Ross Inc., told Artnet News. “He was more interested in teaching you how to paint yourself so you can hang your own masterpiece on the wall.”

Estimating the value of Ross’s paintings is indeed challenging. He was remarkably prolific, producing more than a thousand paintings in the course of hosting and around 30,000 in total, by his own estimation. And yet relatively few of works have surfaced for sale in recent years. His enduring popularity is evident in the success of a Netflix documentary, his hit YouTube channel, and the immersive “Bob Ross Experience” on the site of his former studio, all of which would  logically point to solid demand for original works.

“A Bob Ross painting has the unique advantage of being categorized as both fine art and entertainment memorabilia, they are hard to find and have strong intergenerational appeal.” Lindsey Bourret, director of fine art authenticator service Signature. “It’s my understand the price was set at $9.8 million because the gallery might want to ‘hang on to’ the painting.”

Whatever the truth, Modern Artifact’s listing seems neither a mistake, nor a happy accident, but a deliberate game, one it hopes will prove lucrative.

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