Accursed Canvasses: Exploring the Macabre Market for Haunted Painting Online

Detail of “The Hands Resist Him” by Bill Stoneham
(Courtesy of Darren Kyle O'Neill)

The genre of haunted art is an old one. A ghostly backstory can give special allure to paintings that otherwise would simply pass as pictures of unsettling children or messy still lifes. Yet this venerable niche has lately gotten an Internet-age boost: On eBay and craigslist, claims that this or that painting is gripped by some otherworldly spirit abound, serving as macabre sales pitches. 

These haunted paintings tap into something deep in the American psyche, something that can be found throughout the country’s history. Before he was director of the Federal Art Project of the WPA in the 1930s, Holger Cahill is said to have promoted an exhibition of German crafts by declaring that a mysterious painting by a dead artist had turned up in the gallery unexplained. Hotels across the country have also recognized the publicity value of a good painted poltergeist. At the Hotel Galvez in Galveston, Texas, the portrait of Bernardo de Galvez is said to not just follow you with his eyes, but to resist taking a clear photograph unless you first ask for permission.

Anonymous portraits have been transformed into objects of intrigue through a spectral story. Famously, there is the case of a supposed portrait of Theodosia Burr, daughter of the dualist Aaron Burr, who, the story goes, was caught in a pirate attack and washed to shore completely mad with only the portrait connecting her to her identity. The painting is said to have been discovered by the Burr family after her doctor sold it to a dealer, while her ghost is said to be seen still wandering the beach near where her ship was lost.

While the haunted paintings that turn up in online auctions are often less illustrious, they are fascinating in their own ways. The numerous crying children by Italian artist Bruno Amadio blamed for a rash of house fires back in the 1980s remain a popular touchstone, but the most interesting haunted paintings are those with personal stories of the horrors that quietly lurk in their two dimensions. And who is to say there is not some darkness transmuted by these paintings that unsettles the mind? Best of all, if you want to find out for yourself, they’re purchase is just a click away. 

To 5 examples of eBay ghost art, with their stories, click on the slide show.