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  • Writer's pictureShafinaz Shaikh

Creating A Billion Dollar Market, Posthumously

How Van Gogh rose to fame from beyond the Grave

In 2018, The global art market was valued at 67 billion dollars and reached approximately 40 million sales. Just from the most basic statistics, it’s pretty visible that there are plenty, (and by plenty, I mean millions) of artists trying to get their work out to the world. Making a name for yourself in such an immensely competitive field can prove to be challenging. It’s a known fact, a majority of artists are never recognised throughout their lifetimes, and never end up receiving the fame they dreamt of. Starting from finding an art dealer who appreciates the work, to getting it exhibited in front of potential customers, selling art can be quite a hassle.

When thinking about famous names who moulded the field and history of Art, ‘Vincent Van Gogh’ is one of the first names which generally pop up in our brains. The Dutch artist died a mentally ill man, with barely a cent into his name. His financial struggle only stopped after he took his last breath. Despite having created over 900 paintings and even more drawings in his 10 years as an artist, he only ever managed to sell a single painting in his life. It’s a well-known fact, that the world didn’t appreciate the peculiar man’s ‘eccentric work’ while he was alive, then what happened that made him a billion-dollar artist centuries after his demise? In the 1880’s, his paintings were not even capable of getting him a cup of coffee, but in the 2020s, Starry Night is valued at a Billion Dollars.

Although the artist was ‘way ahead of his time’, his pieces of canvas didn’t get a multi-million dollar price tag on their own. They were obviously helped by a manager, who of course, had a strategy that defied all the others. All of the millions fetched by his paintings can be traced back to one woman: Jo Van Gogh-Bonger, his Sister-in-law. To get a bit of context, Vincent and his brother Theo were extremely close. They exchanged letters regularly and Theo’s only wish was to make the world aware of the priceless works of his brother. He couldn’t fulfil this life goal as he died shortly after Vincent’s unnatural death, due to being a patient of Syphilis, and Grief (Vincent, however, was shot in the abdomen. Murder or suicide, whatever it may be, still remains a mystery). As a result of all of this, Theo’s wife Jo was left alone with her son, Vincent Willem (named after the artist), and about 200 of then valueless artworks of Vincent. Although advised to dispose of the pictures, she instead decided to get in contact with the right people and get the ball rolling.

Jo created a marketing strategy that was so personal, rare, and creative, it reaped the interest of collectors, museums critics, and most important of them all, the public. After inheriting all the artworks, she had a couple of paths she could’ve taken when dealing with the paintings. Either sell it fast using her connections in the art industry or create a market of the paintings unlike any other. Although the latter called for decades of dedication, she took the obstacle course as opposed to a sidewalk, all so she could finish what her husband had started.

With the help of her cerebral abilities and the friends & connections she had made since moving to Bussum (an artistic and intellectual hub near Amsterdam), Jo managed to put up around 20 exhibitions of Vincent’s works. According to her exhibition strategy, lesser-known works were placed next to more widely known ones. This psychological tactic helped paint a more ‘prestigious’ image of the works which were previously labelled ‘average’ or ‘unimpressive’. Ultimately, this helped in raising the prices of these paintings, as well as raising their artistic appreciation.

Soon enough, local newspapers started printing praise about Van Gogh’s work. Jo knew that this is not an indicator of success. She made connections in Western Europe. The way to do this was to reach out to the artist’s friends and admirers across the Globe. Apart from this, she also contacted important dealers in Netherlands, Germany, and France. She knew the right retailers, and thus used the correct methods to ensure the expansion is carried out in a way that fulfils her ultimate business aim; International brand recognition. That’s a business lesson to learn!

After deciding that profit is not the end goal, she identified the main business goal: building and maintaining a brand reputation. After successfully exhibiting and loaning Vincent’s work, Jo was inching closer to success. She realised that Van Gogh was different, ‘eccentric’ as some people might put it. She realised that people recognise Van Gogh’s work to be one that ‘makes you think’, and that the artist has had to be going through something extreme in order to be able to produce a work like his. She realised that people were willing to learn about the life, the skilfully cursed life of Van Gogh. He had a Unique Selling Point, a life unlike any other. In order to present how Vincent lived, or struggled through his life, she had to show the world his thoughts, his words, to be precise. That’s when she turned to the letters exchanged between Vincent and his brother, Theo.

Over the years, she put together the letters and created a book. She even translated two-thirds of it into English. The first edition of the book was published in Dutch and German, under the title Brieven aan zijn broeder (Letters to His Brother).

People started making connections between the painting and the letters, as Vincent’s words allowed audiences to put the paintings into context. As a result of all business tactics and emotional motivations combined, Jo was successful in increasing admiration for Vincent’s work, as well as creating a market for it as well.

Jo managed to create an empire and have (almost) the entire world recognise Van Gogh’s name. There are multiple business takeaways from this journey. Starting off, recognising your demographics and your market is an important step. Jo knew she had to get Van Gogh out in the Mass Market and make his name one that is recognisable and is not one that is simply hung on a random wall just because it earned her some money. Thus, she worked to get the work out there by networking in the correct manner. Having a good idea of your own product, and how it appeals to your demographic is another important step. Jo knew the hardships Vincent went through in his life, and thus made sure that it didn’t go in vain. Knowing the rules of supply and demand was also a key skill that Jo had and used. Even though she owned multiple hundreds of paintings and drawings, she resisted flooding the art market with them, and controlled the supply in a way that went along with her ‘making a name’ strategy. Jo sold at least 190 paintings and 55 drawings, and on this list is Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ sold to the National Gallery in London in 1924.

Centuries after his death, admiration of Van Gogh paintings have still not decreased. The monetary value of his works is yet to even reach its peak. After all the work done by Jo, it’s safe to thank her for bringing to light the genius of Van Gogh!



  • Statista. 2021. Topic: Art market worldwide. [online] Available at: <,39%20million%20the%20previous%20year.>

  • Google Arts & Culture. 2021. 10 Things You Might Not Know About Vincent van Gogh - Google Arts & Culture. [online] Available at: <>

  • Beard, E., 2021. What Billionaire Collectors Would Pay for the “Priceless” Art in U.S. Museums. [online] Artsy. Available at: <>

  • 2021. [online] Available at: <>

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