He painted a portrait of the late Queen in 2005 to mark her 80th birthday, and a record-breaking 100,000 people flocked to Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery to see an exhibition of his work seven years later. Then came Rolf Harris’s arrest and imprisonment for indecent assaults on adolescent girls. The disgraced entertainer’s death aged 93 was announced this week. So where does Harris’s demise leave the once-thriving market for his art?
It’s easy to forget – although it probably is better best forgotten, given everything – that Harris was once a highly successful artist. His skill with a brush was, of course, bolstered by his public profile on TV and beyond. But his portraits and large-canvas paintings of Australian Outback scenes could command hefty prices.
One work from 1984, called Maori Chief, was valued at £45,000 ahead of his 2014 conviction. “Rolf Harris up there with Hirst and Picasso?” ran one newspaper headline prior to his incarceration, its question mark doing a remarkable amount of heavy lifting. Even so, Harris was a credible and popular painter.
The value of Harris’s art fell sharply following his imprisonment, with some commentators suggesting that valuations had more than halved. This didn’t stop one eBay user from listing a Harris painting called Buses at Trafalgar for £125,000 as a “buy it now” price in 2017. But in the main, prices slumped. And while some dealers are hopeful that his pieces may prove to be canny long term investments following his death, the large volume of cut-price Harris works for sale on auction sites suggests that many people are keen to get rid of their art.
Type “Rolf Harris” into eBay and 224 results show up under the “art” filter (there are countless additional books, Stylophone pocket keyboards and 7-inch singles). The average price for art is around £200. The pieces for sale are largely limited edition prints rather than originals, and many are being sold for less than they cost. One canvas print of a painting called Trust was bought from a gallery for £595 and is now on sale for £225. “Despite his downfall, a fantastic artist and all round entertainer,” goes the sales description.
A framed £750 hand-signed canvas print of Uluru (Ayers Rock, as was) is – we are told – being sold elsewhere without a frame for £1,795 and is therefore a “real bargain”. Another picture that was bought for £895 in 2013 is on sale for £150, while one with a retail price of £795 is being sold for £240 (in this case, a misplaced certificate of authenticity is given as the reason for the reduction). “Grab a great bargain,” say a few of the sellers. A suspicious number of people seem to be moving house and simply don’t have room to hang their Harris in their new place. Funny that.
This, though, is the bottom end of the market. There remain numerous Harris works on eBay for a considerable – extraordinary – amount of money. One original oil painting, called Rembrandt’s Genius, is on sale for £33,000 (plus £22 postage). According to the seller, it comes with a three page handwritten letter from Harris himself explaining where, how and why he painted it. Meanwhile a “very rare” original painting called Carra Barra, which was created live on stage in Canada in 1976, is being sold for £24,999. The sales blurb, by a company called Platinum Galleries, argues that Harris’s work is likely to appreciate in value in years to come.
“Regardless of what he did or didn’t do, his originals still command massive price tags as true investors know how much his work will sell for after his death,” the description says (it is unclear whether this was written before or after this week’s news). The seller may be right. Who knows? However, they also note that the RRP of the painting is £100,000, meaning it’s being sold for a fraction of its value. The people selling both Rembrandt’s Genius and Carra Barra did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nor, it should be said, did a large handful of art dealers and auctioneers I contacted to get their opinions on the worth or otherwise of Harris’s art today. It seems like a toxic subject, for obvious reasons.
Some Harris collectors have buyers’ remorse. One caller to broadcaster Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio show late last year said that he’d bought £600 worth of Harris’s art following his initial arrest in 2013 in the hope that he’d be found innocent. “When he was first arrested, I had a bit of spare cash and I thought to myself, I actually believed he was innocent, so I went out and bought a load of his art,” the caller said. “And I thought, ‘Well, as soon as the court case comes round he’s going to be found innocent and then suddenly the price of the paintings are going to go through the roof.’ But of course it went the other way.”
Ferrari asked the collector what he’d done with the pictures. “I displayed them at the time but now they’re behind a wardrobe,” came the answer. However, despite this, the caller said that he believed the works had artistic merit and that it was possible to separate the art from the artist.
This was a debate that was controversially put to the test last year when Channel 4 bought art by people including Adolf Hitler and let a studio audience decide whether comedian Jimmy Carr should destroy it or not. The same show saw the audience vote on whether a work by Harris or a picture by sculptor Eric Gill (a paedophile) should be destroyed. Harris’s art was saved and Gill’s was set alight (Gill was recently in the news after a statue by him outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House building in London was attacked by a protestor with a hammer).
The Channel 4 show, called Jimmy Carr Destroys Art, was panned by the Telegraph for being “moronic” and “pathetic”. It was meant to provoke debate on the separate-art-from-artist question but merely ended up trivialising Naziism and suggesting that despicable crimes are relative.
Perhaps Theatre Royal Plymouth has adopted the best approach to Harris’s art. Harris painted a mural in one of the theatre’s dressing rooms thirty years ago when he appeared in a pantomime there. The picture showed Harris hanging by his hands from the branch of a giant beanstalk. But the self-portrait was painted over then Harris was convicted of the indecent assaults in 2014. No sensationalism or fanfare. With just a coat or two of paint it was gone. Harris had been erased from memory. And they didn’t even have to put it on eBay.