Piero Manzoni – The Artist Who Became Famous for Selling His Own Poop

Ask anyone if they would pay anything to own another’s person’s poop, and they will most likely say “hell, no”. But everything changes when the said poop becomes a work of art. Case in point, “Artist’s Shit”, a collection of 30g tin cans allegedly containing the poop of Italian artist Piero Manzoni. Art collectors are buying them for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When Piero Manzoni came up with the idea to can his own poop, in 1961, he probably had no idea that his 30g metal containers would one day sell for astronomical prices. In 2007, the Tate art gallery in London, bought one of Manzoni’s 90 cans for £22,350 ($30,000), and while that may seem like a lot for what is literally just canned crap, they actually got a great deal. In 2007, another can of “Merda d’Artista” was auctioned off in Milan, for a whopping £81,000 ($108,000). Crazy, right? Not really, just another good deal, because Manzoni’s cans of poop are currently worth around $300,000 apiece. Last year, someone bought can no. 54 for £182,500 ($242,000). At this rate, they’ll soon be worth millions.

So who was Piero Manzoni? Apparently, he was originally an aristocratic Italian artist specializing in conventional painting, but that all changed one day in January 1957, when he visited an exhibition of Yves Klein’s blue paintings at Galleria Apollinaire in Milan. The display of canvas after canvas of simple blue paint had a huge impact on 23-year-old Manzoni, completely changing his perception of art.

In 1958, the young artist exhibited his first avant-garde artworks, a series of completely white, ‘achromatic’ pictures, and followed that up, just a year later, with some sheets sealed up in boxes. ,”On the boxes would be written the length of the line, its date and, of course, his signature,” Tony Godfrey writes in Phaidon’s Conceptual Art Book. “Here was a truly immaterial and invisible work: if the seal was broken it ceased to be art.”

                                                                                                   Foto: Helene Bagger

Manzoni just kept putting out unconventional artworks, like a series of hard-boiled eggs signed with his thumbprint, a series of balloons inflated by him, called “Artist’s Breath”, and in May 1961, he created the work he would become most famous for, “Merda d’Artista”.

Taking advantage of his father’s can factory, Manzoni created a collection of 90 tin cans, all signed by him and labeled as “Artist’s Shit, Freshly Preserved, Produced and Tinned in May 1961”. Each contained 30g of poop and was originally priced according to the gold market at the time, which meant that Manzoni was literally selling his crap for its weight in gold.

The point of “Merda d’Artista” was to highlight and satirize the gullibility of post-WW2 art collectors, who, fueled by the country’s economic boom, would spend big money on virtually anything, even poop. But even Manzoni himself couldn’t have foreseen that his tin cans would end up selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Piero Manzoni died in 1963, at the age of 29, and never got to enjoy the success of his most controversial piece, to its full extent. Those who knew him said that he had all kinds of outrageous projects lined up, but he sadly never got the opportunity to share them with the world.

Do “Artist’s Shit” cans actually contain Manzoni’s waste, or anyone’s waste, for that matter? According to Agostino Bonalumi, who worked with the Italian artist, the containers are filled with plaster, “I can assure everyone the contents were only plaster,” Bonalumi told Corriere della Sera. “If anyone wants to verify this, let them do so.”

But that’s the thing, no one will dare open one of the cans to see the contents for themselves, not with them costing them a fortune as works of art. Popping the lid of one of the 90 cans pretty much compromises its value as a collector’s item, and many believe that the mystery is actually a big part of the artwork’s charm.

At the same time, the contents of “Artist’s Shit” tins raises question of authenticity in art. If an artwork is not what it’s supposed to be, does it really deserve all the attention it gets, and the money spent on it? It’s an interesting dilemma, to be sure, one that it yet to be solved.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what the most expensive and sought-after piece of crap is, now you know.