The sale of a Banksy painting for $1.4 million, the highest-ever paid for the British street artist’s solo work, was the perfect finale for Sotheby’s successful “Frieze Week” evening contemporary art auction on October 5, 2018. But before the auctioneers had time to celebrate, an alarm sounded and then, to everyone’s dismay, the artwork began to self-shred while sliding down the frame.
The “Girl With Balloon,” which depicts a young girl rendered in black and white reaching out towards a bright red, heart-shaped balloon dangling from a string, is one of Banksy’s most celebrated artworks. The image, originally spray-painted on the walls of an East London street, has been reproduced numerous times by both the artist and imitators. According to Sotheby’s website, the piece up for auction at the London branch had been obtained directly from the artist by the current owner in 2006. The marketing fine print described it as “spray paint and acrylic on canvas, mounted on board, in artist's frame.”
The significance of that sentence came to light a few minutes after the painting self-destructed. That’s when Banksy released a video revealing how he had pre-planned the prank by hiding a shredder inside the frame! “A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” he wrote. “In case it was ever put up for auction.” On October 7, 2018, Banksy released another video which captured the picture as it was being shredded, leading many to believe that the artist was present in the auction room and probably pulled the prank himself.
Sotheby’s claims it had no knowledge of the shredder or that the artist was planning the prank. In a press conference following the incident, Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, simply said, “We’ve been Banksy-ed.” However, many believe the auction house knew about the clever ruse, which is why “Girl With Balloon” was the last item for sale. The idea is further corroborated by a photo that Caroline Lang, the chairman of Sotheby’s Switzerland, posted on her personal Instagram page. It shows a mysterious man in the salesroom operating a hidden electronic device. It was later revealed that instead of being held and questioned, he had been led out of the room by the security staff.
Though Banksy has not revealed his reason for the prank, many think it was a calculated move and draw attention to his work and, perhaps, even to show his contempt of art being reduced to a price tag. However, the latter reason may backfire on the artist given that experts think the partially-shredded painting may be worth even more than when it was intact. When asked how the auction house plans to deal with the anonymous buyer, Mr. Branczik responded, “I’ll be quite honest. We have not experienced this situation in the past, where a painting is spontaneously shredded upon achieving a record for the artist.”
Banksy, who began his career spray-painting buildings, rose to fame in 1993 when his anti-establishment graffiti art began appearing on trains and walls in Bristol, England. By 2001, the artist’s classic blocky spray-painted signature became a familiar sight all across the United Kingdom and then, soon after, worldwide – from Vienna to Paris to San Francisco. While the elusive artist, who has never been identified, has added more traditional paintings to his portfolio since, he continues to delight fans and annoy authorities with his provocative street art when least expected.
Resources: standard.co.uk,latimes.com, Sotheby's com.