Minneapolis gallery selling first Bob Ross painting from PBS show for $9.85M

Published 2:13 pm Tuesday, September 26, 2023

By Cathy Wurzer and  Gracie Stockton, Minnesota Public Radio News

Bob Ross’ first piece from the first episode of the PBS program “The Joy of Painting” 40 years ago is up for sale at the Minneapolis gallery Modern Artifact — for $9.85 million.

It’s called “A Walk in the Woods,” showing a bright blue pond, a wandering path and trees painted in yellow and shaded with lilac.

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Gallery owner and long-time Bob Ross collector Ryan Nelson said the painting is so special due to being the first of more than 1,000 Ross created on air over 403 episodes.

“This was what you’d call the rookie card. This is the very first painting that started the craze that continues to transcend generation after generation after generation,” Nelson told MPR News.

For the last 15 years, Nelson has been buying and selling work from in-demand contemporary artists. Five years in and thinking back to his childhood, Nelson set his mind to finding a Ross painting. Now, his gallery has sold nearly 150, making Modern Artifact a key broker for Ross’ creations.

Nelson says “A Walk in the Woods” is worth its price tag or more.

“He’s undiscovered in the art world, for the most part. A lot of his paintings are starting to get into the 40s, 50s and $60,000 range,” Nelson said. “But when you look at the power of this artist, he’s got 350,000 unique searchers [online] on a monthly basis. Compare that to Picasso, Warhol, you’re looking at a little over 200,000.”

Nelson said art appreciation is shifting away from museums or highbrow galleries shaping public opinion; instead, social media is driving a new people’s movement of which Ross is at the forefront.

While Ross faced criticism for his technique, Nelson argued the artist’s wet-on-wet style shows a high level of skill.

“It’s also interesting to think about the other artists, right? So Andy Warhol sold a piece for $200 million last year — it was photographed not by him, printed on a canvas in black and white and then he touched it up with paint,” Nelson said. “I don’t think that argument really stands in the art world because too often, there’s a lot of people that you could say have technically executed a piece better than anyone else that never get any notoriety.

“The reality is, is what you see in this painting compared to what you see in a Picasso or a Warhol … is the hope that Bob Ross gave you. When you see the piece you feel inspired.”

There’ve been a number of offers on the painting, Nelson said, but he’s envisioning a different future with a focus on accessibility.

“We are looking at a number of ways that where we can actually get this out in the public,” Nelson said. “We’ve had thousands and thousands of people reach out and I really feel that I think that that’s going to be the next move is we’re going to take this on tour, while we have it for sale, along with the other pieces.”