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How David Bowie Helped Create an Art Hoax

The mystery of Nat Tate.

David Bowie once took part in a hoax that fooled the art world.

Bowie was on the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine. So was author William Boyd. At a Modern Painters get-together, Boyd threw out of the idea of creating a fake painter. Bowie took it one step further, suggesting that Boyd write a book on him.

In 1998, Boyd wrote said biography, called Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960. Boyd arrived at the name by combining the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery. Boyd made Nat Tate a New York–based abstract expressionist painter and fabricated the detail that Tate destroyed 99 percent of his work before committing suicide—which is why no one had heard of him. As for the surviving paintings, Boyd painted them himself, and Bowie claimed to own one. To really welcome Nat Tate into the world, Boyd held a book-launch party for the book on April Fools’ Day at Jeff Koons’ New York studio, at which Bowie read several excerpts. And the fancy folks of the art world walked right into the trap, claiming to remember Nat Tate and bemoaning his tragic death. A few days later, the secret was out.

In this video interview from Christie’s, Boyd reflects on the hoax. The writer credits Bowie’s participation as the reason the story got so big. He adds, “It just shows people love the sense of mischief which lies behind all hoaxes: Let’s make self-important people look stupid. And I think that’s what motivated us and what motivated him.”

Sotheby’s will hold an auction of David Bowie’s contemporary art collection starting Nov. 10. Sadly, there are no Nat Tates for sale.