What effect did the artist’s 2018 salesroom prank have on his prices? A major sale at Sotheby’s looks set to reveal the impact. The Bristol-born street artist created a global media sensation in October when one of his “Girl With Balloon” paintings shredded itself moments after selling for 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) at Sotheby’s.
Almost exactly a year later, on October 3, another notable Banksy painting will be offered in the same London salesroom. With a valuation of 1.5 million to 2 million pounds, it is expected to reach a new auction high for that elusive, anonymous artist.
The painting, “Devolved Parliament,” from 2009, is a timely satire on Britain’s political establishment, showing an animated debate in the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament, conducted entirely by chimpanzees.
Wittily painted with the dreary realism of the paintings that hang in the British Houses of Parliament and more than 14 feet wide, the painting was shown at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, in the artist’s hometown, to coincide with Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union on March 29 this year, a date that has been postponed until Oct. 31. “Devolved Parliament” will be displayed in London just four weeks before the revised Brexit deadline.
Demand for Banksy’s paintings and prints has surged since last October when Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, announced, “We’ve been Banksy-ed” at a post-sale news conference. The remote-controlled shredding mechanism jammed halfway down the canvas, leaving it dangling beneath its elaborate gold frame: Banksy aficionados quickly claimed this “Girl With Balloon” had added value as a piece of performance art. Soon after, Sotheby’s announced that the buyer, described as a “female European collector,” was happy to keep her booby-trapped purchase.
The painting, now retitled “Love Is in the Bin,” has since March been displayed on long-term loan at the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, Germany. “Presented in the museum context, it has to stand up to key works from the history of art — from Rembrandt to Duchamp and from Holbein to Picasso,” says the Staatsgalerie’s website.
The artistic prank of the century, designed to satirize the excesses of the auction world, has become a highly valued museum piece.
This time around, it seems that Banksy is not behind the sale. Sotheby’s catalogue entry for “Devolved Parliament” says the work was “acquired from the artist by the present owner in 2011.” Banksy’s publicist, Joanna Brooks, said in an email, “The painting in question is being sold by the owner who is in no way associated with the artist Banksy.”
Regardless of who owns “Devolved Parliament,” the artist’s view that Britain is ruled by political primates will be spread far and wide by the publicity surrounding the sale and the likely social media reaction. And there could also be quite a lot of money to be made. The market for Banksy’s art is still on a high after the 2018 shredding incident.
“It had a massive effect,” said Ben Cotton, founder of the Hang-Up Gallery in London and a dealer in Banksy works since 2007. “There was so much press coverage. Our phones went crazy.”
Cotton said that since October he had sold about 10 of Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon” screenprints at prices from 50,000 pounds to more than 100,000 pounds. “It’s the most coveted print, the most iconic,” he added. “It’s what everyone wants.”
This surge in interest has encouraged auction houses to cash in on Banksy. Christie’s and Sotheby’s are both holding their first dedicated online sales of the artist’s prints. Estimates range from 5,000 pounds for lesser unsigned images from large editions up to 250,000 pounds for signed rarities.
“Every time there’s a stunt in the media it peaks the prices,” said James Baskerville, the head of Christie’s 30-lot Banksy sale, which includes a rare 2004 “Girl With Balloon” screenprint with the heart-shaped balloon in gold. “There’s been quite a steady rise over the last two years.” By 8 a.m. in London on Monday, online bidding for the print had reached 150,000 pounds.
According to data from French database Artprice, worldwide auction sales of Banksy increased from $6.7 million in 2017 to $13.7 million in 2018. Baskerville added that last year’s shredding incident had “really revived and refreshed the market; it has encouraged people to sell.”
But rising prices can encourage unrealistic expectations. This appeared to be the case on Saturday when Bonhams auction house offered a Volvo truck that had been spray-painted by Banksy in 1999 as the backdrop for a New Year’s warehouse party in Spain.
Incongruously included among the Jaguar E-Types and Bentley Continentals of Bonhams’ annual Goodwood Revival classic car sale, the truck had been commissioned by Mojo Fellner, a co-founder of the pyrotechnic performance troupe Turbozone International Circus. The free-painted decoration included flying chimpanzees that a decade later would land on the leather benches of “Devolved Parliament,” as well as the trademark motto “Laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge.”
But a low estimate of 1 million proved too ambitious, and the truck was left unsold at 920,000 pounds.
“Everyone’s asking high prices because of the leverage of the shredding,” said Acoris Andipa, a London gallerist who specializes in Banksy paintings and prints. “But the asking price and the closing price can be very different.”
Andipa and others said that higher prices tended to be paid for Banksy’s works through discreet private sales, rather than at public auctions. The current salesroom high for the artist is still the $1.9 million paid back in 2008 at Sotheby’s for the 2007 painting “Keep It Spotless.”
Andipa said that he knew of Banksy paintings selling privately in excess of $5 million and that the artist was still painting and selling canvases to selected clients. “There are ways and means of acquiring a Banksy from the primary market if you are prepared to abide by certain conditions,” Andipa added. “You’ve got to have a lot of money to be on the waiting list.”
Ralph Taylor, the head of Bonhams’ contemporary art department, who formerly worked for Banksy’s longtime dealer, Steve Lazarides, confirmed that the artist still sold new paintings directly to selected clients. “He uses the money to support his other projects,” he said.
Now that his much-reproduced “Brexit mural” in Dover, England, showing a workman chipping off one of the stars from the European Union’s flag, has been whitewashed, Banksy’s art will still get its message across as the deadline for Britain’s departure from the bloc looms. And at least “Devolved Parliament” doesn’t have to self-destruct.
Some might say British politics did that some time ago.