Banksy's Prank

Was Sotheby's In On It?

The dramatic finale to Sotheby’s Contemporary art evening sale in London, Banksy’s self-destructing work of art Girl with Balloon (2006), was dampened a bit by the unforeseen need to re-open a lot from the Teiger sale unsold earlier in the evening. Sotheby’s porters quickly removed the beeping, half-shredded contraption so auctioneer Oliver Barker could complete the night’s business. And so he did. Over the hullabaloo, Barker watched as Sotheby’s staff replayed their bids from before as the auction audience tried to make sense of what had just happened.  

Any hope Sotheby’s might have had that the incident would remain a contained footnote to the evening sale highlights quickly evaporated as news outlets, Twitter and Banksy himself on Instagram hyped the prank.  

Immediately suspicion has focused on whether Sotheby’s was in on the caper. There has been surprisingly little examination of Banksy’s motives, somewhat oddly. Whichever direction one turns, there are a number of unanswered questions. 

Here’s our attempt to sort some of it out: 

What’s the point?

This isn’t the first time Banksy has mocked buyers and sellers of his work. He published a print depicting an auction sale room much like the one at Sotheby’s with the title, I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit. The prank seems to rest on the idea that sellers of his work who try to profit off his reputation risk having their works self-destruct.

Why does Banksy disdain his buyers?

Banksy’s video tries to make the implausible claim that he built a shredder into the frame for a print 12 years ago just in case the owner might sell it someday. But this print is one of 25. There’s no evidence any of the others are in a similar frame. There’s another edition of the image with 150 works. That’s a lot of booby-trapped frames to make just to punish secondary market sellers.

So Banksy is opposed to all secondary sales of his work?

That would seem to be the message of the prank. But art historian Bendor Grosvenor points out that Banksy maintains the website and authentication service, Pest Control. Since authentication is the bedrock of secondary sales value, the easiest way for Banksy to sabotage the secondary market for his work would be to stop authenticating.

Destroying the work makes a pretty powerful statement too. Can’t he just have a flair for drama? 

That’s the problem. The work hasn’t been destroyed. It has been altered. The shredding mechanism only consumed half of the print. It left a very recognizable image creating a new work of art that is unique. The story behind the work and its unique quality now makes it potentially much more valuable.

The really interesting question here is whether the winning bidder now has the absolute right to the work “as is” even if the consignor turns out to be Banksy who does not want to sell or wants more money for the “new” work created by the prank.

Maybe Banksy wants it both ways. But doesn’t that mean Sotheby’s was in on the prank?

That’s what everyone assumes. Sotheby’s says: “We had no prior knowledge of this event and were not in any way involved.”

You mean to tell me no one at Sotheby’s noticed the big, bulky frame housing the shredder?

Sotheby’s did notice the frame and asked to remove the work from it. Pest Control said that the frame was integral to the work and removing it was not an option.

“It was in an ‘artist’s frame,’” Sotheby’s says, “as described in the catalogue. It is increasingly common fo artists to deem frames integral to their artworks and, in such instances, we would not interfere. The frame was a big, heavy, Victorian-style frame,” Sotheby’s adds, “the kind of frame Banksy would use to poke fun at the establishment.”

Why was a cheap print in an Evening sale?

More than a dozen of these Girl with Balloon images have sold for more than $100,000 over the years. In March, Bonhams sold one for $478,819. That’s enough to get noticed. The auction houses use their evening sale slots to raise the visibility of artists and bodies of work that are gaining in value.

Why was it the last lot in the sale?

The last lot in a long 67-lot Evening sale is hardly a position that consignors fight for. The fact that Sotheby’s brought back the Currin after the Banksy suggests they did not know what was about to happen.

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