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Dead Artists Are Better

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...not quite what we meant. (James Ensor, The Painting Skeleton)

"The overwhelming prerequisite for the greatness of an artist is that artist's death."
Thiessen's Law of Art
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The vast majority of shows that mention paintings will mention this trope at one point: Artists are never recognized until after they're dead. Though this has happened in many cases, there have also been a lot of painters, modern and classic, that have been recognized while still alive. Nor has the deceased been recognized immediately after his corpse hits the ground, as it seems to happen when this trope is in effect. (Historically, this has affected composers and writers far less than people assume. Shakespeare was successful during his lifetime, so was Beethoven. It stands to reason - only a few people would continue doing something for a long time without some kind of success. This is glaringly obvious for composers - of the top tier, only Bach and Tchaikovsky comes even remotely close to this trope, and they were still far from starving during their lifetimes.)

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In theory, the idea that dead artists are better may result from them dying at their peak: they don't have the time to taint their earlier successes with a Dork Age of divisive later works that fail to live up to the masterpieces (whether through being too different or more of the same).

In 99% of the cases where this trope is mentioned, one character, either the artist or an associate, will come up with the "brilliant" idea of spreading rumors of the artist's death, which immediately causes said artist's work to magically get the recognition that eluded it all these years. Of course, something inevitably goes wrong, the artist is found to be alive, and the status quo is restored. For some reason, fraud accusations are seldom made.

The modern-day sentiment is probably "Dead Musicians Are Better", music being arguably the second-most personal media form. Technology has also amplified this trope's effects, with streams of a freshly-deceased artist's songs skyrocketing and social media making people's opinions more apparent. (2016 was a good year-long example.)

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See also Vindicated by History, True Art Is Ancient, and Short-Lived, Big Impact. When a musician's death or departure leads to their group doing better than before, it's an aversion of The Band Minus the Face. When a dead artist is celebrated (through song), it's a Celebrity Elegy. Such celebrities are good candidates to hang out in heaven. Many examples below also fall under Never Speak Ill of the Dead, in that some artists who became greatly celebrated after their death lived miserable and/or ridiculed lives before dying. Compare Posthumous Popularity Potential, which entails real-life artists seeing a boost in popularity/recognition after their death.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • This trope is discussed in Detective Conan. In Conan and Kaito Kid's first encounter, Kaito Kid suggests thieves are creative artists while detectives are merely art critics. Later in the case as Conan attempts to unmask Kaito Kid's disguise:
    Conan Edogawa: Most talented artists gain fame only after death. I'll make you a renowned master, Kaito Kid... by burying you in a cemetery called prison.
  • The plot device with a faked death skyrocketing popularity and recognition is used in Galaxy Angel almost perfectly, although with a military officer instead of an artist.
    • A similar thing happens in Cannon God Exaxxion, though in this case the people playing up the war hero's death actually believed he was dead at first. When it turns out he wasn't, rather than admitting their mistake, they decide to make it come true.
  • In Mega Man Star Force, Hyde is under the impression that people will not love his grim, macabre works of art until after he dies. This is a motive for his villainy in the first place, as he tries to find Mu to become immortal so that he may live to see people appreciate him. When this doesn't seem to be working out, he starts an art class for children to get them to appreciate the art when they grow older, but they all ignore him and simply come for the free food. Free food provided by Luna Platz at that, who is perhaps is his sole earnest student.
  • In one chapter of Pet Shop of Horrors, a has-been actor whose only success was a small role in a cult-classic sci-fi film dies of suicide by basilisk. At his funeral, people are already starting to speak of him as if he were a great actor whose immense talent was too quickly robbed from the world.
  • Manjimutt from Yo-Kai Watch uses this as an excuse for why he has no friends. It should be noted Manjimutt is already dead and is not even an actual artist.
    Manjimutt: The snowflakes are my only friends. Artists are never appreciated in their lifetime.

    Comic Books 
  • In the Doctor Who comic strip "Interstellar Overdrive 2" in Doctor Who Magazine, the manager of a band plans to kill them all in a spaceship 'accident' so the record company can make a fortune reissuing new editions of their back catalogue.
  • In Adventure Time: Marceline Gone Adrift, an evil hipster takes advantage of Marceline's apparent death to appoint himself the keeper of her memory, produce unauthorised merch, and eventually loot her house for memorabilia.
  • In MAD, in one Melvin and Jenkins feature, Melvin pockets a terminally ill boy's art, hoping that it will increase in value once the kid dies.

    Comic Strips 
  • The New Yorker once ran a cartoon with a well-off couple asking a street artist "And how much more would this be worth if you died?"

    Fan Works 
  • In The Horror! The Horror! Nicolas and Perenelle Flamel, having changed their names and professions after the Philosopher's Stone was (supposedly) destroyed, discuss doing it again in the hope of finding better ones than they currently have.
    Nicolas: Famous artist?
    Perenelle: Maybe, but you'd have to die before your paintings would be worth anything.
    Nicolas: Done it before. We could do it again.
  • In No Competition Ally consoles an eight-year-old Harry for his poor grade in art.
    Ally: No artist is truly famous unless they are dead, so it scarcely matters while you're alive.
  • In Claro de Luna it's mentioned that the famous cellist Colccherini wasn't well-recognized until after his death. This also foreshadows Octavia's own fate, as her lover Luna immortalizes her in history after her death.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The movie Pauly Shore is Dead shamelessly parodies this trope.
  • This trope is the subject of the song performed in the opening sequence of Phantom of the Paradise.
  • Robin Williams' son in World's Greatest Dad is a terrible person in life, but Robin takes advantage of his death to sell his own book, disguised as a journal the son wrote before death.
  • Titanic (1997): "It's a pity we couldn't hold on to that drawing. It'll be worth a lot more in the morning." Ironically, he's kind of right — the painting is found in a safe and restored, and given that it's a memento that was brought up from the Titanic it's now a priceless historical artefact. And the artist dies in the sinking, so bonus.
  • In She's All That, two girls in Lani's art class compliment her on how wonderful her paintings are. She thinks it's a genuine compliment until they suggest she invoke this trope and "off herself" as all the greats did.
  • The trope is the whole plot of the '60s movie The Art Of Love, which has Dick Van Dyke staging his own death to increase the value of his paintings.
  • Discussed in Die Another Day. Jinx is meeting with a surgeon on the Cuban island, discussing a drastic procedure to change her looks. He says that he considers himself an artist, and she remarks that most great artists aren't celebrated until after their deaths, upon which she shoots him.
  • In Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis, a struggling record producer plots to invoke this trope by murdering his one remaining artist in order to boost flagging sales of her work. It... doesn't go according to plan.

    Literature 
  • Animorphs: Invoked by Edriss 562 in setting up The Sharing, though not involving an artist. She infested a charismatic real estate salesman named Lawrence Alter, changed his name to Lore David Altman, and when the group was large enough, killed him. She'd learned from human media that people will revere a dead leader, but living leaders could have their reputations ruined.
  • In the Discworld novel Soul Music, Music With Rocks In requires the early death of its first host (the singer Buddy) in order to spread further. "Everyone will remember the songs he never had a chance to sing. And they would be the greatest songs of all." See the quote page.
  • Older Than Radio: In one of Mark Twain's short stories, two starving artists manufacture a great deal of art... and then manufacture a story about how the artist who painted these things is fatally ill. Naturally, the artist in question eventually "dies", and his paintings become valuable overnight. Note that said dead artist is François Millet.
  • Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers is a murder mystery in which the victim and the prime suspect are both authors. The publicity from the trial substantially helps both their sales; the detective discusses this as a possible motive for the murder but doesn't pursue it because he's in love with the suspect and trying to clear her. As it turns out, she's innocent, and his murder had nothing to do with him being an author.
  • In Margaret Atwood's Resources of the Ikarians, the inhabitants of a barren island devoid of sources of income start cultivating dead artists.
  • Noted in Dumas' novel The Count of Monte Cristo, where the Count notes that the modern school of artists has one major failing — "They have not had enough time to become Old Masters".
  • The Second Deadly Sin (1977) by Lawrence Sanders uses this trope. The artist with the terminal illness has stockpiled paintings to provide for his family and agent. But he lives longer than expected and keeps on producing more paintings...
  • This was the entire motive of the killer in Phryne Fisher novel Murder in Montparnasse.
  • The first case Kevin J. Anderson's Dan Shamble is shown working on in Death Warmed Over is that of a ghost artist, who's having a feud with his heirs: they don't want him to start painting again, because his pre-mortem paintings' value will plummet if they aren't his "last work" anymore.
  • Averted in Max Beerbohm's Victorian Era short story Enoch Soames. The titular obscure poet is convinced that his reputation will soar after his death, so he sells his soul to travel 100 years into the future and bask in his posthumous glory. An afternoon spent in the Reading Room of the British Museum teaches him the bitter truth. Not only is he considered a mediocre poet; he's also believed to be a fictional character created by Beerbohm.
  • Invoked in the Felicia, Sorceress of Katara novella "The Cult of the Rubber Nose", the owner of an art gallery bought a bunch of crappy paintings at excessive prices, then attempted to make up his losses by assassinating the artists to make them more valuable.
  • in the novella "Getting Even" by Ray Brown, an entire extraterrestrial race (sometime before the story starts) got wiped out by a bomb dropped into their sun, causing a solar flare to wash over their planet; and the art of that race suddenly became quite valuable as a result.
  • In The Newest Plutarch, Walter Monks’ last movie was a major hit due to his No Stunt Double policy getting him killed on set.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Invoked in 45 RPM: Robert's farewell letter to Maribel, as he says that his passing should make for great publicity for his second album if he doesn't make it out of the heart surgery alive.
  • The Dukes of Hazzard: Season 6's "Dead and Alive," where Boss Hogg declares Hazzard County artist Artie Bender dead...shortly after he witnesses two crooks rob an armored car. While Boss is anticipating selling Artie's paintings at grossly inflated prices, Bo and Luke are trying to have their alibi credited to hard-nosed Sheriff Little, who has fingered them as the suspects.
  • Since one of the main characters of Caroline in the City is a struggling artist, this trope was inevitable: Richard is mistakenly reported dead and his paintings start selling like hotcakes. Complications arise when a prominent critic demands to go to the funeral. Hilarity Ensues...
  • In Sabrina the Teenage Witch Hilda sells Salem's paintings, passing them off as her own. When he changes his art style, the new paintings don't sell as well. His solution? Tell the newspapers Hilda died, hoping the paintings sell better. Unfortunately for her, the man she was dating reads the obituary and runs out of the house in terror when she comes into the room.
    Hilda: That's just great. I meet the man of my dreams. And then I die.
  • In Seinfeld, George buys a crappy painting from an artist who he expects to die soon, hoping that his death will cause the painting to go up in price. Instead, the artist recovers from his illness, crediting George with saving his life because somebody finally buying one of his paintings had restored his will to live.
  • On The Golden Girls, the girls hear that a famous artist is near death, so they buy one of his paintings to make a quick buck. Then Sophia ends up saving the guy's life with a blood transfusion.
  • In the Bones episode "The Skull in the Sculpture" the murderer turned out to be banking on this trope.
  • On The Muppet Show, Gonzo once gave Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge his autograph under the assumption that it would be believed that his last act had rendered him dead, and his autograph would be worth a lot more.
  • On Taxi, the Sunshine Cab Company employees bid on a painting by an artist Elaine knows is at death's door. He's announced dead right after the painting is sold to someone else, causing a priceless breakdown from Louie.
  • In a Saturday Night Live sketch, a marketing consultant advises a past-his-peak rock star that this trope is the best way to increase his popularity. When the performer proves reluctant to take this route, the consultant shows him a line graph comparing Peter Frampton's and Jim Morrison's album sales for the same time period.
  • Parodied on an episode of iCarly: when Spencer (an amateur artist) is incorrectly reported dead in the newspaper for some unexplained reason, he (along with sister Carly) exploits this by milking thousands of dollars off of customers for his sculptures.
  • The Hogan's Heroes episode "Klink's Masterpiece" ends with Col. Hogan reminding Klink of this trope, noting that Vincent van Gogh and Claude Gauguin starved, only becoming popular after their deaths.
  • Criminal Minds: The unsub in "Magnum Opus" dies of Suicide by Cop for this reason.
  • Midsomer Murders: After an artist is murdered in "The Dagger Club", her dealer immediately triples the price of all of her artworks.
  • One Victim of the Week in iZombie is an artist. One of the leads turns out to be an offhand comment about this trope, but the lead turns out to be false (but it is used by the real killer to frame the artist's dealer). Several art admirers even mention that the greatest thing an artist can do for his career is to die.
  • On 30 Rock, Jenna's Bio Pic about Janis Joplin is getting terrible advance reviews, so Jack decides to fake her death to take advantage of this effect. Jenna ends up blowing the whole thing in the middle of a live televised tribute because of a banner showing her birth and death year: "It has the year I was born on it. The real year, not the actress year."
  • Major Crimes: In "Acting Out", a former child star is murdered while attempting to make a comeback. At the end of the episode, his agent remarks that this is the best career move he could have made, as sales of his old TV series, his CDs and even his unwatchable concert film are going through the roof.
  • Death in Paradise:
    • The motive for murder in "Music of Murder".
    • When an aging rock star is murdered in "Swimming in Murder", the killer arranges for him to die in the most rock-n-roll way possible: being electrocuted in a swimming pool. The killer hopes this will make him a legend and ensure the band's comeback is successful.
  • Murder, She Wrote: In "Angel of Death", when it is thought that a famous playwright has been murdered, his director remarks that his final, unpublished play will have a sellout season.
  • Lampshaded by the widow of a now-famous artist whose death is being re-investigated in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries.
    Veronique: Now that he's famous, now they care about his death.
  • The Doctor Who episode "Vincent and the Doctor" plays with the most famous real-life example by transporting Vincent van Gogh to the present day; his paintings, which were worthless in his time, are the subject of a major art expo, and the man running it gushes about how Van Gogh is the greatest artist of all time. But seeing this apparently isn't enough to prevent his suicide.
  • The pilot episode of Lucifer has this turn out to be the motive behind the pop star's murder.

    Music 
  • Bill Drummond (later a member of The KLF) wrote a song that appeared on his solo album The Man dealing with just this. The title: "Julian Cope Is Dead". During the song, Julian Cope dies in order to make his band, The Teardrop Explodes, famous. Bill used to be the manager of the band and the song is a parody of Cope's own solo song "Bill Drummond Said". Drummond's frustration with the music industry (and Cope in particular) is quite well known.
  • The Dire Straits song "In the Gallery" relates the story of an artist driven to create but never gaining recognition, until... "I've got to say he passed away in obscurity / And now all the vultures are coming down from the tree / So he's going to be in the gallery"
  • The title of the Nightwish song "Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan" translates to "Death Makes an Artist". They also have "The Poet and the Pendulum", which is basically a 14-minute Epic Rocking song about Tuomas dying, which was written by Tuomas himself.
  • The whole point of "Self Suicide" by Goldie Lookin Chain
  • "Schneller Leben" (Live Faster) by German punk band Die Ärzte is all about parodying this trope.
    "Kurt Cobain hat es gewusst, im alter droht Gesichtsverlust. Was glaubst du warum Jesu Christ, schon so jung gestorben ist. Jimi Hendrix und Bruce Lee, alt geworden sind die nie. Lern von diesen Vorbildern, als Leiche hat dich jeder gern."
    (Kurt Cobain knew, with age comes loss of face. What do you think Jesus Christ died so young? Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee, they never got to grow old. Learn from these great examples, everyone likes you as a corpse.)
  • The Smiths song "Paint A Vulgar Picture" is about the record industry's tendency to do this with dead musicians.
    At the record company meeting, on their hands a dead star.
  • The Christian Rock band Dead Artist's Syndrome is named for this trope.
  • Mentioned in "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry: "Penny for my thoughts? Oh no, I'll sell them for a dollar / They're worth so much more now that I'm a goner / Maybe then you'll hear the words I've been singin' / Funny when you're dead, that's when people start listenin'"
  • "Fake My Own Death and Go Platinum" by Psychostick.
    Well you see, I wanna sell a million records / But my music sucks so what am I to do? / They say an artist is appreciated after he's dead / I have no talent, but I bet that it's still true. / The lyrics all suck / and the chords are too funky / We're on a major label cuz / we're just plain lucky / We sold 4 albums to our own mothers / we have a few supporters / (but there aren't many others…) / What if I could live / When they all would think I'm dead / Oh just what if I could have me a cake / and eat it too? / I'd be set for life / No more struggles, no more strife / Let the money do the talking / I'm a dead man walking.
  • The Twenty One Pilots song "Neon Gravestones" is about how we should stop doing this, especially in regards to romanticizing an artist's suicide.

    Radio 
  • Invoked in The Goon Show episode "Tales of Montmartre:"
    Gauguin: You can keep my paintings.
    Toulouse-Lautrec: What good are they?
    Gauguin: Nothing now, they'll be worth a fortune after I'm dead.
    Toulouse-Lautrec: After you're dead... [GUNSHOT] I'm rich!
  • The Hotblack Desiato story arc in The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy has the universe-famous rock star spend a year dead for "tax reasons". It doesn't do his music sales any harm, either.

    Theatre 
  • Timberlake Wertenbaker's play Three Birds Alighting on a Field invokes this trope repeatedly. One scene has an art dealer discussing the disappointing sales of a particular painter. The artist had died young, which the dealer mentions as a "good thing, from a marketing point of view".
  • A discovered play by Mark Twain, Is He Dead?, is based on the short story described above with a smattering of Attractive Bent-Gender and some rather funny Melodrama.
  • In Pippin, the title character tries to succeed at life by taking up art, only to discover that "you got to be dead to you find out if you were any good."

    Video Games 
  • The price of a painting in The Sims skyrockets after the sim who painted it dies.
  • A pair of side missions in Grand Theft Auto IV have you helping out an aspiring rapper. At the start of the second mission, he gets shot, and you have to take him to a hospital before he dies. While he's in the car with you, the rapper contemplates how, now that he's had a brush with death in the form of getting shot in the street, more people will take him seriously, meaning that his shot at the big time is now right in front of him. It's not quite death, but it's close enough.
  • Both discussed and parodied in Tales of Monkey Island Chapter 4: The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood:
    Guybrush: How're sales going?
    Stan: Great! Celebrity merchandise is always a good investment, especially if you suspect that the celebrity in question is about to become a wind chime in the gallows! NOTHING sells like dead celebrities.
    Guybrush: Yeah, well, I don't plan on dying today.
  • In Wadjet Eye Games' The Blackwell Convergence, the antagonist of the story is using a power he doesn't fully understand to strategically kill people in ways that will help his investments do well. At a couple of points, he kills an actor so the movie he stars in will get more promotion, and he kills an artist on the opening night of his art show. The movie becomes a smash success for the small company that produced it and the artist's paintings all sell immediately for a lot more than the original asking prices.
  • Played with in Left 4 Dead 2. It is initially believed by some wall writers that the Midnight Riders have been overwhelmed by the horde, as evidenced by various writings mourning their deaths. When it is announced that the band is still alive, the wall is then filled with bashings and criticisms of their work.
    • Another Valve Software game, Team Fortress 2, also plays with this. In the official comic Unhappy Returns, it's revealed that Scout spent his entire life savings on Tom Jones merchandise. Spy points out how illogical this is — he's one of the most virile men on the planet, he's in his twenties (note that the game takes place in the late '60s-early '70s), he has virtually no enemies...Scout merely replies that it's a "Get-rich-slow" scheme. Of course, this being an Alternate Universe from our own, Soldier murders Tom Jones out of jealousy a short time later (He was living with Soldier's former roommate. It's a Long Story.)
  • One of the newspaper clippings you can get at the end of Dyscourse, depending on your choices:
    ISLAND VICTIM, GEORGE HATFIELD, RECEIVES CRITICAL ACCLAIM FOR RECENTLY DISCOVERED LOVE NOTES AND POEMS
    "I liked his work BEFORE he died." - Radek Smektala

    Visual Novels 
  • This forms part of the plot of the Visual Novel Hotel Dusk: Room 215 for the Nintendo DS; an artist who is very much alive and his partner had been exploiting this effect, getting high prices for the artist's paintings by making up a dead artist named "Osterzone" and saying that Osterzone was the one who painted them.

    Web Comics 
  • Subverted in Sluggy Freelance where Torg's attempts to get his dead friend Bert's painting into a gallery are wildly unsuccessful.
  • In one Dork Tower strip describing comic book convention tips, an artist has just drawn a sketch for a fan, who remarks "Wow, if you die on the way home, this'll be worth LOTS!"
  • In Irregular Webcomic!, after being killed by his future self, David Morgan-Mar speaks to the Head Death about how his death would affect his comic's popularity as shown here.
  • Spoofed in Cyanide & Happiness, where an artist insists he will be "more famous after he dies", then hangs himself with his own intestinal tract. A subsequent newspaper headline still describes him as "pretty bad".
  • This is invoked in Sam & Fuzzy, where Corrupt Corporate Executive Mr. Sin routinely "kills" his label's artists if they become unmanageable, and uses this trope to get more sales out of them, while the actual artist, still alive, is transported to a deserted island and held there. It's implied the entire recording industry in that universe does it since it happened to Elvis in 1977. He's still on the island thirty years later, and quite bitter about it.
  • Butch of Chopping Block takes advantage of this, buying paintings from artists before he kills them.
  • Invoked by Amelia Travoria in Dominic Deegan. She used her enchantment magic to drive Michael Cao to produce darker pictures until he was Driven to Suicide, so she could sell his last works at a markup.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • A Pinky and the Brain episode had Pinky become a hugely successful artist named "Pinkasso", with Brain collecting the money made from his paintings to fund his latest scheme. Naturally, Brain makes "Pinkasso's" popularity skyrocket by announcing his death, but it backfires when Pinky stupidly walks into the auction of the "deceased" artist's work.
  • Lampshaded in The Simpsons: Lisa is outraged that a record of her deceased idol, Bleeding Gums Murphy, costs $250. When Comic Book Guy learns the man is dead, he immediately doubles the price to $500.
    • In the show's parody of Amadeus, the dying Mozart (Bart) comments to his sister (Lisa, the Salieri figure) that he thought she was the more talented artist, but now that he is dying young he'll "be cool forever".
  • In one episode of Hey Arnold!, Dino Spumoni tried to increase his popularity again by faking his death - he got the idea from a book he read about van Gogh. His plan backfired when an imitator took in all his business instead.
  • Parodied in American Dad! when it was shown that Stan had a collection of Tara Reid commemorative plates. His son Steve says it will be worth a lot once she dies in a few months.
  • In Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, Daphne describes Fred as "one of those geniuses who nobody understands until they're dead." Her description's debatable, though this incarnation of Fred is, at the least, definitely a Cloud Cuckoo Lander.
  • Futurama:
    • Parodied in the episode "Roswell That Ends Well", where Farnsworth grumbles that being trapped in the 20th century means he'll have to "endure the horrible music of The Big Bopper, and then the terrible tragedy of his death."
    • Completely averted in the seventh season episode where Bender becomes a paparazzo. Calculon needs to beat a famous actor named Langdon Cobb so he can weaken his ego. He drinks a bottle of food coloring (which is very poisonous to robots) so he can make a believable death scene. Langdon still wins unanimously.
  • In the Darkwing Duck episode "Paint Misbehavin'" after Splatter Phoenix is splashed with turpentine and begins to melt she comments that at the very least her paintings may now be worth something after she's dead.
  • Lampshaded in an episode of Archer. Archer casually mentions that his long-suffering valet Woodhouse is a genius at what he does.
    Woodhouse: Though like so many other geniuses; unappreciated in his time.
  • In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Out of the Picture", an art critic makes the mistake of informing Mr. Krabs of this trope, prompting him to make repeated attempts at getting Squidward "out of the picture" so he can resell Squidward's worthless paintings for a huge profit.

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