What Happened to Bob Ross’ 30,000 Paintings?
You’re more likely to find one of his pieces in a yard sale than on eBay.
This is the era of being able to interact with your favourite celebrities or even own a bit of them, whether it’s a jewellery collection or clothing brand. Becoming part of a fanbase has never been easier, which is why it’s so strange that Bob Ross’ legacy sits in a warehouse, gathering dust, especially since there’s a market out there for his artwork.
Typing “original Bob Ross painting” into eBay was never going to be a good idea, but it was worth a shot. 549 results came back from the search, and none of them were actual Bob Ross paintings. The “Bob Ross style” canvases range from $10 to $2,200, plus shipping, and some of them are pretty good, but they’re not a real Bob Ross.
The problem is that there aren’t many in circulation at all. In fact, almost all of the art is stored in a small warehouse in Herndon, Virginia, where Joan Kowalski runs Bob Ross Inc.
Her parents Annette and Walt helped finance Bob’s early career along with his wife, Jane, but when the artist and his wife died in the ’90s, the company and all of the holdings were left to the Kowalskis.
After 31 series of The Joy of Painting, Bob amassed many canvases during the show’s run, and he didn’t just create one version of the painting each episode; he made three.
The reference version created before the show was filmed was usually the best one. The second was the version made for television, which Bob painted as the cameras rolled and was admittedly never as good as the others. The third was created for Annette Kowalski.
Bob used to teach painting classes, which is where he and Annette met. He was still unknown, but Annette saw something in him, and he eventually moved in with her and Walt and Bob Ross Inc was founded.
The warehouse in Virginia isn’t open to the public, but a few of Bob’s 30,000 canvases have made their way into museums and exhibitions over the years.
“We have been brainwashed to believe that Michelangelo had to pat you on the head at birth. Well, we show people that anybody can paint a picture that they’re proud of. It may never hang in the Smithsonian, but it will certainly be something that they’ll hang in their home and be proud of. And that’s what it’s all about.” — Bob in the Orlando Sentinel, 1990.
Four of Bob’s paintings made their museum debut in the New Age, New Age: Strategies for Survival exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum in Chicago in 2019. Later the same year, several of Bob’s canvases filled the halls of Franklin Park Arts Center in Virginia, celebrating the artist. The paintings from this exhibition were part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History’s show a few months earlier, which included notebooks, an easel and fan letters.
There are a few Bob Ross paintings out there, but they’re hard to come by. Some line the halls of PBS news stations across the US, but they’re not for sale. Art gallery, Modern Artifact, currently has an original Ross on sale for $95,000, and they’ve previously sold another 30, but they’re not easy to find. In fact, Modern Artifact only buys or brokers between five and eight Ross paintings a year. Ryan Nelson from the gallery explained the struggle to find a real Bob Ross.
“Over the years, we’ve tried nearly everything to find Bob Ross paintings; we have placed wanted ads in local newspapers where Bob spent time, we have called every PBS station in the nation and worked directly with them, and we have set up a number of online campaigns on different platforms looking for paintings.”
Despite several other well-known artists on their books, the gallery based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has received recognition as the place to go for an original Bob Ross.
“After doing this for years, we eventually became known as the gallery that buys and sells his art. We buy and sell more of his paintings than any gallery on the planet. To retain that position we offer more money to buy his paintings than most others are willing to risk.”
In 2019, a couple from Minnesota realised they’d had a Bob Ross painting hanging on their wall for over 40 years. The couple bought the artwork in Alaska back in 1980 for $60 from the artist, and they’ve since sold it for $10,000 to Modern Artifact. According to the gallery, the most valuable are those created on the show, but they’ve even found original Bob Ross paintings on the back of leather bomber jackets.
“We recently had a young man that found a painting at a thrift store that he bought for $10. He was able to raise enough money on the sale to start his own small business mowing lawns. We purchased a collection of 10 paintings that were found in a shed in a family’s yard.”
So, if you’re considering tracking down an original Bob Ross, instead of looking for one on eBay, get out there and have a rummage at a local yard sale because you’re more likely to come across a legitimate painting there than on the internet.