UPDATE: Despite the rumors running rampant throughout the art world that Sotheby’s was in on Banksy’s elaborate auction house prank, the street artist emphatically denies the allegations. A spokesperson for the artist was quoted in The Guardian, stating: “I can categorically tell you there was no collusion between the artist and the auction house in any shape or form,” and that the artist “was surprised as anyone when the painting made it past [Sotheby’s] security systems.”
But while Banksy’s team emphatically denies any involvement from Sotheby’s, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that perhaps someone else, specifically the seller, was in on the ruse. The original authentication report from Pest Control, Banksy’s in-house authentication board, states that the work was gifted by the artist to someone named Jo, and reads “for work on Barely Legal show, Los Angeles, 2006.” It’s very likely that the “Jo” referenced in the authentication report is none other than Jo Brooks, Banksy’s longtime publicist.
In an article from The Art Newspaper, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, Alex Branczik, explained that the seller consigned the work with the auction house under two stipulations—one, that the work be placed in the evening sale, and two, that it be hung on the wall during the auction. Branczik said that it’s not uncommon for sellers to include such stipulations when consigning blue-chip works—they think that more bidders will be interested if they see the work hung on the wall. But as for the work’s place as the final lot of the auction, that decision came down to Branczik.
But how did not one auction house employee—be it a cataloguer, or a conservator—not catch the secret shredder embedded inside the ornate Victorian-style frame, then? Branczik said that Sotheby’s approached Pest Control with a request to remove the frame, but was denied. “Pest Control said very clearly: The frame is integral to the artwork, which it was, just not in the sort of way that we thought. We also had a third-party conservator look at the work,” Branczik said. “You address what you see; it was more like a sculpture. If it says the frame is integral, you don’t rip it apart.”
It was the last lot of the night, and many auction-goers appeared to have grown tired. Sotheby’s Evening Contemporary sale in London was coming to a close, as evidenced by the clusters of empty chairs and rising chatter as the auctioneer announced the final lot, Banksy’s 2006 Girl With Balloon. The bidding rose at a steady pace and quickly surpassed its estimate of $386,000, selling for the artist’s previous record of $1.4 million, as the room clapped at the close of another successful auction. As the rounds of applause died down, a faint alarm sounded. Heads of auction specialists whipped around, their hands pressed to their mouths in horror. Much of the audience leapt to its feet, pointed at the work, and broke out in laughter. Girl With Balloon was feeding itself through the bottom of the frame, coming out in shreds like ribbons of fresh linguini.
“We’ve been Banksy-ed,” declared Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, at a press conference following the sale. For an artist whose satirical work is often tinged with dark humor and social commentary, it hardly comes as a surprise that the anonymous prankster would stage such a scene—and at an auction house frequented by the über-wealthy, no less. His stenciled spray art, which began appearing around the English city of Bristol and in London’s Shoreditch neighborhood in the mid-’90s, forces viewers to confront social, political, and humanitarian issues by way of his clever and often poignant designs that mash up cultural icons. His 2005 work Show Me the Monet replicates the French Impressionist’s 1899 painting Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies but superimposes a traffic cone and two overturned shopping carts atop Monet’s masterpiece. Coupled with a play on words that replaces the artist’s name, it’s a sharp critique on society’s fixture with material goods. His other works have featured children playing with guns, a man in riot gear armed with a bouquet of flowers, and a screaming child from the Vietnam War holding hands with Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, among others. But, perhaps most important, his work is often a sharp critique on the commodification of art and the idea that the art market lifts up only a certain segment of artists and catapults them to success.
Which makes an auction house the perfect place to destroy an artwork just moments after it sells for over a million dollars.
Despite his pseudonymous ascent to fame, the artist behind the Banksy moniker has remained true to his chosen medium and has never revealed his actual identity, apparently so as not to participate in the culture that promotes artists from certain social circles and markets to celebrity status. In a video posted to his Instagram, Banksy wrote, “A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting in case it was ever put up for auction…” followed by footage of a person, presumably the artist, concealing a plane of sharp teeth beneath a sheet of wood. Prices on artworks have skyrocketed in a market that is largely unregulated, and collectors are increasingly treating artworks as commodities rather than works of cultural significance.
In a statement to the press, Sotheby’s said, “We had no prior knowledge of this event and were not in any way involved,” which may strike some as curious considering that not only did the work appear as the final lot in the sale, allowing it to make a lasting impact, but it was hung on the wall directly next to the specialists taking phone bids—setting up the instantly iconic reaction shot as the art world looks on in shock. And it’s curious still that the work’s material is described as “spray paint and acrylic on canvas, mounted on board, in artist’s frame,” whereas most descriptions of works make no reference to their frame. According to a Sotheby’s auction catalogue, “An asterisk at the end of a description indicates that an item has not been examined outside of the frame,” but there is no symbol printed next to the work. “Cataloguing and authenticating is generally a rigorous and intensive process,” said an auction house employee who was unauthorized to speak on the record. “Even if they didn’t remove it from the frame they would still remove the backing and inspect the frame itself to some extent.” And given that every work that enters an auction house must be thoroughly inspected in order to write a condition report, among other reasons, it’s difficult for some to believe that not one specialist would take notice of a shredding device built into the frame. The work’s provenance states that it was “acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 2006,” which is more than “a few” years ago—which is the time frame Banksy gives in his video. And would a battery within the frame last that long anyway?
Regardless of whether or not Sotheby’s was clued in to the theatrical prank that left certain auction-goers clutching their pearls, it’s hard to deny the excitement brought on by the ever-controversial street artist. The internet ran rampant with commentaries, theories, and conspiracies—some found it brilliant, while others decried the entire performance. As for how the performance affects the work’s value? “You could argue that the work is now more valuable,” Sotheby’s Branczik said. “It’s certainly the first work to be spontaneously shredded as an auction ends.”