(Credit: Robert Sullivan)

When David Bowie and William Boyd pulled off “the biggest hoax in art history”

We’re extremely pleased to bring you the perfectly fitting story of how David Bowie conned the entire art world. Bowie isn’t just a rock star from outer space, nor a mythical music figure of worship, above everything else, Bowie was ‘Dave from Brixton’. And if there was one thing Dave like to do; it was laugh.

On April Fools Day in 1998, he had himself a very big chortle as he pulled off “the biggest hoax in art history” with friend and novelist William Boyd.

Let’s set the scene, it’s 1998, the studio of Jeff Koons is full to the brim with the who’s who of the bulging New York City art scene, all with cash burning in their pockets and without a real clue on art. Bowie is moving around the studio offering champagne and canapes like a more than capable host for an exciting night. The show was for a “lost American artist”, Nat Tate.

Tate was an orphan born in New Jersey in 1928, adopted by an artsy family on Long Island and sent to an affirming art school and established in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Tate wasn’t stuck in the States, he had travelled to France to meet Picasso but instead of being inspired, he had become embarrassed by his work in light of Picasso’s immense talent.

According to the legend, Tate returned to New York to burn his work, sadly succumbing to substance abuse and eventual suicide on January 12th 1960. Or so the crowd thought. In truth, the artist, the backstory and this event was all an elaborate hoax arranged by Boyd and Bowie when they met on the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine.

When the pair met in 1998 they quickly became friends, finding common ground in art, and decided to introduce a fictitious artist to the magazine. Putting their plan into action with the flair of a novelist and a performer, Nat Tate was born.   

You can never doubt David Bowie for being committed. So it’s no surprise that they went one step further and published a monograph about the artist, choosing a German publisher to avoid English questions. The pair found joy in the details of their fabricated artist’s work with Boyd, an amateur artist himself, even painting some work of Tate’s.

They went as far as to ask friends to contribute to the hoax, with Gore Vidal and Picasso’s biographer John Richardson adding cementing blurbs to their book about Tate. Bowie himself adding “the great sadness of this quiet and moving monograph is that the artist’s most profound dread — that God will make you an artist but only a mediocre artist — did not in retrospect apply to Nat Tate.”

Back to the April Fools’ Day party in 1998. The show was known officially as the launch of “Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960,” released as the first book from Bowie’s own publishing house, 21. Bowie read extracts from the book, employing British journalist David Lister to move among the crowds and start conversations about the fictitious painter.

Lister made comments with a wry smile as deploying noteworthy moments with the assumption the art-lovers would already know Tate—playing on the insecurity of the New York art world isn’t something new, just ask gallery owners, but Lister played it to a tee. He was not to be disappointed as apparently some guests had even seen his shows in New York during the ’50s.   

The party was an unequivocal success with another exhibit of Tate’s work scheduled for the following week in London. But sadly, for Bowie and Boyd, before they could get their man Nat Tate into a museum and the show permanently on the road, which was their plan, David Lister broke the story and the art-world recoiled in equal laughter, shock and embarrassment.

The Nat Tate show offered up a disparaging view on the peer pressure of the art world and highlighted the fragility of the human condition to want to be a part of something.

Boyd sees the hoax as a particularly scathing comment on modern art and the desperation to be ‘in the know’. “It’s a little fable,” wrote Boyd, “particularly relevant now, when almost overnight, people are becoming art celebrities.” The hoax ironically catapulted Boyd from a well-known and respected author into a talk-show guest celebrity.

Although Boyd and Bowie didn’t make any money out of the hoax one piece from the show titled ‘Bridge, no. 114’ sold for £7250, with the profits going to charity. Bowie was a showman, a charlatan and a bloody good laugh.   

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