Art

I Think I Just Found $10,000 Inside a Painting I Bought for $88?

It also apparently contains some diamonds and emeralds. Which is cool.

Justin Caffier

Justin Caffier

Foto av skribenten

How was your weekend? Mine was pretty good. I watched the fight with friends, caught a movie, and discovered a painting I'd purchased from a local artist for $88 apparently has $10,000 cash inside it.

On August 19, I passed by Gabba Gallery, a Los Angeles art space I'd never seen before. The owner, Jason Ostro, was outside spray-painting the sidewalk in preparation for the exhibition that would be opening the following day. I inquired about the show—named Cratedigger due to its vinyl-hunting theme—and, after mentioning I was a journalist, he agreed to let me come inside for an early preview. Once inside, I took some time to peruse the exhibit's selection of 12x12-inch pieces from local artists.

One of the pieces, ARTISHARDT, an unassuming monochromatic abstract piece hanging by the men's bathroom, caught my eye. It wasn't the most visually stimulating work on display, but the name of the artist, Ruby Heart, rang a bell. I realized I'd met Ruby at some party about a year earlier, where we had a brief, pleasant interaction. I walked away from the conversation thinking he was a photographer, so it was a pleasant surprise to run into a painting of his in the wild.

An even more pleasant surprise was the painting's $88 price tag, a far cry from the $300-plus stickers on most of the other works. I'm always looking for ways to support local artists, and one I'd actually met in person just happened to have made the only painting in a show within my meager budget. I took it as a sign and purchased ARTISHARDT.

The next night, at Jason's suggestion, I stopped by the exhibition's official opening party and met Ruby for the second time.

"I thought you only did photography," I said before reintroducing myself and sharing the news that I was now his patron.

"I'm glad it's going to a good home," he said, before asking if I'd read the list of materials beneath the painting. "It's a three-dimensional piece for a reason."

Photo by the author

Revisiting my newly purchased painting, I noticed the screw heads around the perimeter of the thick frame and that the placard beneath it, rather than the usual "acrylic on canvas," read "gemstones, tektite, quartz, cash, oatwheat, wood, etc."

Convinced that this meant there was something of value hidden inside, the remaining days of the exhibition were like a protracted Christmas Eve for me.

On August 26, the final day of the show, I went into Gabba and began unscrewing my painting's "lid" while the just as curious gallery staff watched. (It bears mentioning that, a few days before opening the painting, Ruby posted an Instagram pic of the painting with a caption stating that he'd "hidden $10k inside." As I'd only visited his page right after the purchase, I didn't see it. The gallery staff had seen it, though, and sent out a press release stating that's what was inside.)

Once inside, I took stock of the inner contents. Poking through a sea of gold glitter was an assortment of what appeared to be precious stones, minerals, and shards of glass. I couldn't really focus on any of that, however, because staring me right in the face, dead center in the box, covered in a translucent caulk, was what looked very much like a stack of cash.

My stack of cash drying under a heat lamp. Photo courtesy of Ruby Heart

I picked up one of the lid screws to start picking away at this sudden windfall's rubbery prison, but a gallery assistant staid my hand, asking, "Are you sure you want to do that?" She was right. I had to start thinking like an art owner and consider that this painting's value might be more than the sum of its parts. I pressed pause on my impulse to harvest right as the artist himself walked in the door to catch my reaction firsthand, having been tipped off by the gallery that I'd be in.

After congratulating me on my purchase and showing me progress videos on his phone that convinced me there was indeed a real wad of cash inside, Ruby went off to talk with the gallery staff while I walked my painting to my car, calling loved ones to share the news, rambling like Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Philips.

A few days later, once the shock had finally worn off, I spoke with Ruby Heart again to get a bit more info.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: If this was a marketing stunt to get me to write about you, congratulations, it worked. So what inspired you to do this?
Ruby Heart: Since I was a little kid, I've always loved playing pranks. There's that saying, "If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life." I figured out that I love creating a ruckus and situations that have huge effects on people.

There was also this Italian artist from the 60s, Piero Manzoni, where he sold his shit in a can, and I saw a little of myself in him. That's something I'd do. The problem there is you need a bit of notoriety before someone buys a can of your shit. Gotta start somewhere. So why not a lot of money? Because art.

I haven't really dug through the glitter yet. What all is inside this painting?
There's a bunch of cash, obviously. And my grandfather—he was my best friend—he passed away in 2009, and I inherited his ring, and there are some diamonds and emeralds from it in the painting. I feel like anyone with a bit of money can put cash in a painting, so I put some truly meaningful things in as well to try to reaffirm that I'm not just some rich piece of shit. There are also some crystals, some minerals from a bunch of mines I've been to like lithium, quartz, amethyst, a small piece of moldavite—a pretty valuable stone from an asteroid. All kinds of weird herbs, spices, beer, bourbon. I think I cut my finger while finishing it so there's some blood in there, too.

I might be a bit biased with my feelings about this painting. I doubt everyone will have as positive a reaction as me. What do you have to say to your inevitable detractors?
I dunno. "Fuck you?" I don't really care. Maybe it's because I watched the Tupac movie a couple days ago. I just want to keep creating things even if this is chalked up to a publicity stunt. Oh well. Sometimes you have to scream in someone's face to get their attention.

Well, you have our attention. What are you screaming?
Pay attention to me while I'm alive. A lot of artists get famous after they die. LA, especially, is so rich in art culture. I'm sick of seeing my friends and people around me who are full of creativity but have no influence.

And a lot of the stuff I do see is regurgitated crap from artists who are already successful. Basquiat and Warhol rip-off bullshit. I might be shooting myself in the foot, though. There could have been someone, at some point in time, who did something with cash like I just did. Oh well.

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels