There are a lot of people who would love to know!
For as long as we’ve had artists, we’ve had artists playing jokes: on each other, and on their audiences. Sometimes these jokes are in their works for all to see, sometimes they’re just an afternoon’s hi-jinks (maybe someday, I’ll have to tell the story of Brunelleschi and Donatello (and the rest of Florence) making a carpenter think he was another person for two days).
Recently, at Sotheby’s, “Banksy”, played a joke moments after one of his most well known works sold at auction. It became an instant viral art phenomenon. Check it out (start at 1:30 to see the moment of shredding, watch from 50 seconds for Banksy’s set up)
But who is “Banksy”, and why would he do this?
Who is he?
Good question. Only a few people in the world know. “Banksy”, one of the most well-known living artists in Britain, is a pseudonym the artist professionally uses. Very little else is known for certain about him. In fact, the idea that “Banksy” is a “him” appears to be one of the only things we know for certain about him…and after writing this article, if “he” turned out to be a “she” this whole time…wouldn’t surprise me. Colossal prankster, this artist.
He began his career in graffiti, which explains the nom de plume. In 1993, his work, frequently satires and commentary about life in Britain, began appearing around Bristol. By 2001, he was creating work all over the UK, and then all over the globe. His work always hinges on social commentary, and rarely provokes an “eh”, response. You either love him, or hate him. Since his work appears in public places ( buildings, water towers, trains, streets, ect) a number of his works have been destroyed by municipal councils, and they only remain as photographs people took before they could be removed or painted over. Others have been deliberately preserved. Some pieces have been sold at auction, in situ, (wherever the piece is located) leaving the purchaser with the problem of “how do I move this thing now?”
Recently, (well, within the last decade or so…) Banksy started to create works on paper and canvas. These have allowed him to display his work in museums (sometimes, without the museum’s prior permission!) (Actually, nearly always without the museum’s prior permission…and in disguise nonetheless–he’s a reverse Thomas Crowne!) and those works have been sold at auction houses. However, Banksy himself often derides art at auction (which explains why he himself never gives these pieces directly to the auction house, they always arrive second hand) and after several of his pieces sold well over the estimated pre-action cost, he released this image via his website:
Note the message on the piece being auctioned.
Which brings us to this recent prank.
When Sotheby’s was contacted about selling this particular piece, Girl with a Balloon, there were several conditions attached:
1.) The piece will not be removed from the frame at any time for authentication. The frame was created to go with this piece by the artist himself, and removing the image from the frame for authentication, would destroy the piece’s value. (Removing images from their frame for authentication is a standard practice, but there are also many loopholes for these practices if, like Girl with a Balloon, the frame is an intrinsic part of the work, or there is a message in the artist’s hand saying “do not remove from frame” on the reverse of the image. In those cases, the image remains where it is, in respect for the artist’s wishes.)
2.) The painting will be hung on the sales room wall during its sale.
3.) The painting can only be sold in the latter half of the sale.
In return for complying with these conditions, Sotheby’s would be compensated with more than the usual cut of the final price.
After some negotiating, Sotheby’s agreed. Did they suspect something was up? Very likely, given Banksy’s reputation, but what exactly, they did not know.
Shortly after selling for nearly four times the pre-auction estimate, an alarm sounded, and the rest is history.
Turns out, when the painting, which was created with spray paint and an intricate cardboard stencil, (like many of Banksy’s works) had been built with the shredder encased in the frame “in case it ever came up for auction”, as Banksy said moments after the news broke. This, of course, was the reason the piece couldn’t be removed from the frame.
Most times, when a work of art is damaged, it destroys its value. Sotheby’s gave the purchaser, an anonymous female art collector in Eastern Europe, the option to back out of the shredded sale. However, given Banksy himself is the one who designed this prank, and pulled it off, and confirmed the name change to Love is in the Bin following the shredding, the purchaser chose to keep her purchase.
Was it destroyed? Does that destroy its market value?
There’s two theories to this:
Since Banksy designed this “destruction” during the creation process, and pulled it off, and renamed it as part of the stunt, it’s not destroyed at all. It becomes part of the piece’s history. As Soetheby’s later said, it is “the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction.”
Translation: it just became more valuable due to it’s new notoriety. Plus, it is no longer a painting, it’s a performance piece!
The other theory is–there never was a shredder. The whole thing may be a magicians trick, with the shredded piece rolled up in the frame, and the whole piece displayed. At the moment of the alarm, the shredded piece was unrolled, and the whole piece rolled up in the frame in its place. This theory was put forward by artist and blacksmith Josh Gilbert, who noted that in the short-lived video Banksy himself posted for a short him following the piece’s destruction, the blades which did the shredding were mounted SIDEWAYS to the piece, not perpendicular and below the piece. (Check out the video above to see what he means) This means the shredding impossible based on the construction shown. If this is the case, then Banksy actually accomplished two tricks: He tricked people into thinking the shredding was done live, when in fact there are TWO pieces, one swapped live for another, and on camera!
Either way, from where I sit, it’s hysterical and very clever. I could get to like this artist and his sheer cheek!
Meanwhile, the hunt for Banksy’s identity is like the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity, a closely-guarded secret that is more fun to mull over than seriously pursue. (Many Britons have loudly denounced serious investigations by journalists into who, precisely, is Banksy, preferring the riddle to the answer.)
Smithsonian: The Story Behind Banksy (complete with a gallery of some of his works)