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This rare Bob Ross painting could be yours — for close to $10 million

A screenshot from the premiere of "The Joy of Painting" shows the painter Bob Ross with the work, "A Walk in the Woods," which is up for sale.
Screenshot by NPR
A screenshot from the premiere of "The Joy of Painting" shows the painter Bob Ross with the work, "A Walk in the Woods," which is up for sale.

A painting from the very first episode of Bob Ross's The Joy of Painting could be yours, but not for cheap.

Titled A Walk in the Woods, the piece is listed at $9.85 million and could be the most expensive and historically resonant Ross piece to ever be sold.

The work depicts a meandering stone path, a cerulean pond and a handful of luminescent trees — all elements that were painted in under 30 minutes during the 1983 premiere of what would become the hit PBS show.

The following 31 seasons (403 episodes) of the Joy of Painting propelled Ross into one of the most recognizable faces in the 20th century art world, not to mention a pop culture icon known for his upbeat attitude and hokey aphorisms.

Before he even picks up a paintbrush in Episode 1, Ross lays out what the audience can expect from the show: simple step-by-step instructions rendered with just a few basic tools and the same paint colors from week to week.

"There's no secret to this. Anyone can paint," he says later on, dabbing at the canvas in a shape that will later clarify into a tree. "All you need is a dream in your heart and a little practice."

The painting is signed "Ross" in red on the lower left corner. Whoever buys the painting will receive a written statement from its original owner — a PBS volunteer who bought the painting at a benefit auction.

"I don't know the exact number that she paid at that point, but knowing what others paid around the same period, I'd assume it was somewhere under $100," says Ryan Nelson, the owner of Modern Artifact gallery in Minneapolis.

Nelson, whose gallery has become the primary facilitator of the growing Ross market, said he purchased the painting from the PBS volunteer with the intention of selling it, but now isn't so sure he's ready to let it go.

"I think that the greatest thing we can do with it is travel it. I'd rather we get this in front of the public," he said. "But there are definitely offers that I would probably have to take."

He's confident he'll get his asking price, even if most Ross paintings that he's traded don't even break the six-figure range.

Part of his confidence comes from the recent cultural resurgence Ross has enjoyed as younger generations discover his appeal through the internet.

That moment could be traced back to 2015, when the streaming service Twitch marathoned old Ross episodesand attracted some 5.6 million viewers.

Today, the official Bob Ross YouTube page boasts over 5.62 million subscribers. Netflix re-launched Ross's second series, 1991's Beauty is Everywhere, in 2016, and reruns of The Joy of Painting still appear regularly on public television.

The increase in popularity has come with increased interest in owning a Ross painting. But, as The New York Times put it in a 2019 investigation, the lack of available Ross work is among "the internet's greatest mysteries."

Ross once said he painted over 30,000 paintings in his lifetime, and he likely painted 1,143 alone for the filming of the show: An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight calculated he produced paintings for 381 of the 403 episodes, and his standard process was to make three of the same paintings for each show; one as a template to copy, one on camera and a third after the show for use in instructional materials.

An estimated 1,165 of his pieces are being stored by his surviving company, Bob Ross Inc., which told The New York Times in 2019 that it has no intention of selling off the works, but has since parted with a few to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

What happened to the rest of the work? Some internet aficionados say that Ross didn't want his paintings available for sale because it would've detracted from the joy he derived from his work. Nelson doesn't buy that theory.

"He sold them at malls, he gave them away at paintings lessons and so there are a lot of paintings that went out there," he said. "I believe, sadly, that a lot of those paintings didn't make it to the popularity that Ross is today."

But in a way, that's also how Ross would've wanted it, Nelson said. He wasn't interested in giving his art to well-to-do collector types or seeking fortune alongside his fame.

The one thing that's clear is that Ross wanted everyone to learn to paint. The rest may have just been a happy accident.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.