The drama of that Banksy sale at Sotheby's

"The urge to destroy is also a creative urge" —Picasso

Of course, everyone is asking whether the value of Banksy’s painting that sold at Sotheby’s yesterday for $1.4 million is still $1.4 million. It’s now probably worth more.

Banksy’s painting was not listed on Sotheby’s auction catalogue, and was a surprise entry to the auction. The work, “Girl with a Balloon,” a 2006 spray paint on canvas, was the last lot of Sotheby’s “Frieze Week” evening contemporary art sale. A gift to the seller from Banksy, it sold for more than three times the estimate and a new auction high for a work solely by the artist, according to Sotheby’s.

The drama began as soon as the painting sold and Sotheby’s staff began conducting its usual concluding rituals, and self-destructed: That is, the painting fell out from its frame, shredding itself into pieces in the process and setting off a security alarm.

The writers are all saying it was “a prank,” of course. Banksy even posted a photo of the shredding, on his Instagram account. And this afternoon, he added a short video (above) showing him building the shredder into the frame—and the moment it went into action. “A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” Banksy writes in the video. “In case it was ever put up for auction.” The video has accrued more than 3.3 million views as of this post.

But was Sotheby’s in on the gag? Was it just coincidence that the picture was carefully placed on view in the absurdly thick frame and timed to be the last lot of the sale?

Sotheby’s would have known about the programmed “prank” because of standard condition reporting practices taken on for the auction of high value items. A condition report is a document that states the exact condition of an artwork received for sale. It describes dimension, medium, year of making, as well as any damage.

So then, was it intentional. “We were Banksy’d,” declared Alex Branczyk, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe. Given the report required to auction artwork, he must be playing along as now, the work that was sold is no longer the “Girl with a Balloon,” but it is the “Girl with a Balloon (shredded at Sotheby’s auction October 2018)” a staged artwork event that took place because the painting was sold at auction.

All kinds of ideas can be read into this event, never mind that high level auctions, such as this one, are unquestionably the domain of privilege. And I remember when Banksy’s work first began to surface. Unquestionably “street art” and grafitti, it had the kind of presence and instant message imagery that made us all stop in our tracks and look. And look. And look. The images were exquisitely positioned to display power against the absence of power. We saw them in war zones in Gaza, in newly chic neighborhoods in San Francisco (Hayes Valley), in New York, Paris, London (who doesn’t remember the tilted red telephone booths?), they were inescapable and impossible to ignore. And they were all for public consumption, freely given by the artist.

We have seen entire sections of buildings and walls removed from their original locations only because they were newly possessed of a Banksy stencil. At a Art Basel|Miami, it seemed obscene that a painting objecting to the Israeli occupation of Palestine was removed from its original location in Gaza to be offered for sale for huge sums. Would it be fair to surmise that Banksy’s 2006 gift of this painting to the seller came prepared in protest to the exploitation of his work? Maybe.

Banksy stenciled painting on wall section removed from Gaza Strip offered for sale at Art Basel|Miami. Photo ©Micaela van Zwoll.

Banksy stenciled painting on wall section removed from Gaza Strip offered for sale at Art Basel|Miami. Photo ©Micaela van Zwoll.