Dear Artist,

An artist who wishes to remain anonymous wrote, “I recently moved into a new house that came fully decorated. In addition to selling most of the furnishings to make room for my own, I found myself with other people’s paintings. After searching online for the artists and coming up empty-handed, I’m wondering what to do. While I respect the creative effort, I want to hang my own stuff. Any ideas?”


“Sunset” 1887
watercolour 40.5 by 60 cm
by Joseph Arthur Palliser Severn (1842-1931)

Thanks, Anonymous. In addition to being priceless soul polishers and gifts to the world, paintings are, like other physical objects if unappreciated, potential space-hoarders, sentenced to gather dust in the recesses of our furnace rooms. Because of their mystery and status as special objects, they can be harder to let go of than a first tooth. As artists, we may feel extra sensitive to any kind of banishment, lest we end up in the Goodwill pile ourselves. As a result, OPP or “Other People’s Paintings,” unless outtakes from the Guggenheim, end up in a kind of art limbo purgatory: unhung, unsung and unpurged until further notice, squandering any chance for a new life in new eyes, no matter how humble or grand.


“Homeward Bound, Sunset” 1861
oil painting
by John Linnell (1792-1882)

Here are a few ideas for letting go:

Paintings by professional, exhibiting or historical artists can be appraised, auctioned or better yet, consigned to representing galleries for the preservation and upholding of the artist’s market value.

Paintings by lesser knowns can also be consigned to smaller auctions, or taken to the swap meet, flea market, antiques fair or eBay. While emotionally tough if it’s your own stuff on the line, being bought and sold, gifted and traded is at times part of art’s long life and provenance.

Unwanted treasures can be gifted to the big museum, or the small one, or school, library, hospital, rest home or community hall.

If a painting’s origin is impossible to source, take the karma plunge and send it to the local charity shop. The charity benefits and the worst-case scenario is that you’ve accidentally purged a masterwork. The best case is that you’ve gifted a symphony in the eyes of another and they scored it for a song. Now, you’ve done your part in keeping alive the myth and mystery of art’s great speculation — sparking joy and fortune in the burgeoning collection of another, while honing and culling your own.


“Sunset with Elk” c.1880
oil painting
by Herman Hertzog (1832-1932)



PS: “But when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.” (Marie Kondo, from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up)

Esoterica: While installing artwork into the new life of some friends recently, I noticed a small pile of other works, waiting by the door. “I was hoping you might help me with these,” said my friend, with a little uncertainty, maybe even guilt. Piece by piece, she explained each’s origin: a gift, a family piece, something from a previous life — none of significant material value and all now wistfully edged out for more timely passions. I scanned and pulled the strongest from the pile — a small, brushy watercolour — and suggested she reframe it. “As for the rest,” I said, “Thank them for their service and let them go. Let them be someone else’s treasure, hang onto only what you love.”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Never discard anything without saying thank-you and good-bye.” (Marie Kondo)



  1. Such good thoughts, Sara! I have friends who haunt Goodwill and other thrift shops hoping to find something unique for their newly decorated guest bedroom or other rooms in their homes. Another friend has several rental properties and finds great joy in the search for exactly the right artwork for each room. A couple of younger friends are in their first apartment and don’t have money to spend on anything unique. They have found wonderful pieces at thrift shops … and even the library, checking them out for weeks at a time and replacing them with something different artwork upon return! “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, the saying goes …

  2. I am finding it so much easier to give away, trade or otherwise dispose of my work as I grow older. If someone is passionate about my work and can’t afford to pay for it, I find a way to to get in their hands. I just traded a new work for a patio cleanup. One less for my kids to deal with someday. Everybody’s happy.

  3. There’s something about this ‘tale’ from an anonymous party that doesn’t quite add up. Moving into a ‘new house’ with absolutely no knowledge of the previous occupant or their contacts seems odd, to say the least. That said, having come up ’empty-handed’ in an online search, perhaps one option would be to put the canvases to use. Simply paint over them.

    • Painting over a canvas, besides dooming that work to never again being seen ” with new eyes”…..has its dangers.
      A friend spent considerable time on an intricate painting with tapestry and architectural elements, only to see the dryed paint begin to crack, and fall off the canvas because of some treatment the previous artist had supplie. He was so disheartened he did not paint again for over a year!

      • The lack of knowledge of the chemistry of painting is amazing. I read things such as just paint over it with horror. Just gesso over your failures is just as horrible a t
        hought . Never, because it is doomed to failure. It has been said art has no rules. Maybe true but chemistry does. Then there are the legal ramifications of destroying another artist’s work. Been to the supreme court it has and the fine is staggering.

    • I’m related to someone with a similar tale, Mr. Francis. The purchase was a condo in a resort area, a second home. The previous owner collected images and objects decorated with moose. When our relative sold the house, she in turn, sold it furnished through a realtor and never met the buyer.

  4. Larry D Spencer’ on

    Sara, Your comments and those of Marie Kondo are helpful, wise, and applicable to so many areas of life. They apply not only to objects of art and other “possessions” in our trust; They also relate to our relationships and growing perspectives of life.

    (This comment comes from the perspective of a ceramic artist in his 80th year as a student, a retired Presbyterian minister, a life-long civil rights activist, a professional urban planner, and an ordinary human being.)

    Thank you and Robert for continuing to share your insights.

  5. stephan chmilnitzky on

    unfortunately, worth(cherish) is determind by cost and that which you give away has no value…my brother hangs my painting in the garage and a cheap painting on black velvet in his living room…go figure.

  6. Great letter, Sara. As I bring new paintings into the world, I can’t help being concerned about the destiny of the unloved ones. This is good food for thought, especially trying to see the piece with new eyes by reframing it. I have a box full of un-stretched paintings in “limbo state”. I also have pieces I’ve purchased in the past that don’t reflect what I appreciate now. I still keep them all, but you gave me something to think about. I would love to send them off to the homes where they would be loved. Marie Kondo is a wise woman, I use her methods in my home.

    BTW, I love your writing and I can usually tell who wrote the letter, but this time I could have sworn that I was reading a letter written by your dad. I could picture him going through a pile of reject paintings and thoughtfully examining them – Thank you for that image :-)



  7. My darling 81-year-old mother recently moved into a retirement home, leaving her 3500 sq ft home to go to 800 sq ft. She has been doing art for 50 years and had to find something to do with all her precious possessions. She decided to have an estate sale with an online auction company. Most unfortunately the sale did not go well, and many of her paintings sold for the minimum bid of $.99. I know many of the people who were blessed to get her work, and they are thrilled, but my mother is having nightmares about the loss. She wakes up in the middle of the night in anguish. She contacts the auction folks regularly to tell them how upset she is. Is it a true learning for me, also an artist with too many paintings!, to watch how difficult it is for her to let go of her work. I feel so sad for her and wish she could enjoy the joy of the people who now have her things.

    Thank you for your essay which gave me yet another perspective on this challenging scenario.

    • As you know many of the people, maybe you could ask them to write a note to your mother saying how honored they are to have one of her beautiful works, and include a photo of it in their home.

    • I helped an elderly artist with his final exhibition. He and his daughter wanted to put really low prices on everything. His art was strong. I told them that it is worth so much more. They kept their ground, and many sold. The artist’s intention was to FIND HOMES for his works. He was not interested in $ or fame.

    • Dear Susan : I feel bad that your mothers hard work went ,so cheep to the world ,but I think that you can be sure of one thing her bank acct, did not grow , but her good name will always be out there every time the new owners of her GREAT ART show what they got a GREAT work of Art for their walls and it is priceless. I should be so lucky to even have a buyer.

  8. What a wonderful essay! As another solo show nears its end, I dread the influx of the newer, larger works to stacks in the garage. If I am not satisfied with what I have painted, I return to it and paint until the work speaks to me. Experimenting with textures, gilding, oils, acrylics and watercolors, each day in my studio has become an adventure. We also rotate paintings in our home, keeping the walls interesting.

  9. Perhaps the answer for some people in this quandary is to donate the art to animal shelters (or other reputable charities) that have once yearly auctions and dinners. It can be a win-win for both parties.

    If you are an elder artist with a lifetime of art, consider this:
    A good friend of mines father passed away. He was a prolific artist in more than one genre, house and studio were completely stacked with it. Though he was a world class artist, his only concern was with the creation of it, not necessarily the selling of it. He was well known his community, but not much further out. Anyone who knows art knew what they were looking at, but no value had been created for it over the years. So my friend has spent the last four years of her life trying to make sure that the art had been sold, donated, stored, or is on loan for permanent exhibit.

    Take care of your art before circumstance forces options that are less than what you might want for it. Also, the burden on loved ones can be enormous, to the point of exhaustion.

  10. Kathleen Scott on

    Donating works to small, community art galleries is an excellent option too. (if they have the room) They can keep a few for their own permanent collection, auction larger amounts, and keep some for future raffles. perhaps even do a solo show post posthumously. As an Art Gallery Coordinator, this pool of resources on hand, was an important part of expanding the profit from fund raising projects. There are many talented artists who never did the promoting in their lifetime to add value to their work. In the hands of a community gallery, the talent gets recognized and appreciated by those who love original art, but can’t afford a lot of it. Some of my own treasured pieces were obtained this way. Sometime we got donated someone’s lifetime collection. I loved the job of researching and evaluating each piece donated. After seeing a few people do their own personal Face Book Auctions of their art, quite successfully, I don’t think I would use a auction house for a private collection from an unknown artist.

    • The brevity of life. The unbearable lightness of being. The preciousness of all nuances of life. The immense kindness of little unforeseen gifts.

      • Oh Dear….what a timely group of letters about a subject tormenting me these days. My last birthday, my husband and I both turned 80, having enjoyed a duplicate birthdate for 60 of those years. I am giving away paintings right and left now. Our families all have many also. Sill, there are no blank walls in our two storied house. Since I graduated from two local Universities….I wonder, sometimes in the night, if one of the small art museums or the galleries in the Universities would have a combined show of works left behind…that Family does not need or want.
        This show could be a donation for Scholarship programs that they have. I have donated in the past to those art auctions that they have sponsored.
        I am thinking about this, but, all I have done about that is to tell some of our kids to contact those people. Locally my name is known, and works are scattered around in many banks, and other places, even in an art school in Italy. But alas, I have not been trying to sell art for many years now…no longer part pf a Gallery either. IT was so good to read that I am not alone in this problem.
        We are also downsizing to a new home….But I insisted on having a basement built under the new house being built…..so I can store things there…and also work at doing something constructive with the old works….and most importantly…..creating a new space that “I can carry on painting with my grand children”. Passing on the joy of being creative to them. Thanks so much for this topic….being addressed.

        • I think the idea of painting with your grankid/s is amazing. They will learn so much about expressing themselves as they work. Will be interesting to see what they create with a little help from Grama.

  11. Oh, This topic means a lot to me. I wake in the night wondering where in the world to find a home for my large paintings, not the usual kinds people hang in their living rooms. If I donate them, they usually go well. But people do not buy them. I have plans to give some to local places such as the library, if they will take one. I have another for a local Historical Society. All the rest, who knows? My kids are not into this kind of art. Other friends’ families love their works and put in their bids for favorites. I have one that is 7′ x 9′ and in four pieces. Where to put that? It is a real problem for elders who paint. Blessings on all who help them out! Donna Veeder.

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