Shredding Banksy

October 8 2018

Video: Banksy, via The Guardian

I enjoyed Banksy's shredding stunt at Sotheby’s Contemporary art Evening sale in London last week. It was clever and amusing. These days we want even our art history to be instant, and there it was; an unprecedented masterpiece of performance art, perfectly packaged to go around the world in moments. Bravo, Banksy. 

But let’s subject this to a bit of instant art historical analysis. What did it mean? What was it really all about? Art? Protest? 

Nope. It's about money.

And not in the way you might think. This wasn’t a wry comment from an artist questioning why people would pay over £1m for a painting made with a stencil. It was about making sure people would go on paying £1m - more, even - for such works. This was a perfect reflection of the hubris and hypocrisy that has infected the upper reaches of the contemporary art market. There’s a lot of money involved. Everyone wants some. Everyone’s in on it. But nobody wants to be the sucker left holding the baby when the party’s over. Behind the smiles, that’s what they’re all frightened about. The show must go on. Banksy made the show go on. That’s why they love him.

Sotheby’s say emphatically that they “had no prior knowledge of this event and were not in any way involved”. I know a lot of people at Sotheby’s, and they’re straightforward, and I believe them. But there are too many questions to not wonder if an over-enthusiastic specialist got carried away. I don’t blame them. Points for initiative.

That said, from an institutional point of view, I can see why Sotheby’s wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Had they been complicit, then straight away you’re looking at fraud; inducing people to bid on an object without telling them what it really was, who really owned it, and who else might therefore be bidding on it. The contemporary auction market relies on a lot of smoke and mirrors, but even that would have been a step too far. There’d have been calls for regulation quicker than you can say shredder. 

Let’s look then at the facts we know so far. The picture shows one of Banksy’s most famous images - in fact probably his most famous. Its fortunes have been helped by the fact that (as the auction house catalogues never tire of saying) “in a poll commissioned last year it was voted Britain's favourite artwork beating such historical heavyweights as John Constable's The Hay Wain and JMW Turner's The Fighting Temeraire.”  Regular readers know that was a phoney poll - organised to sell TVs - and isn’t to be taken seriously. 

The original graffiti was painted on a wall in London but has since been lost. A series of 25 replicas on canvas were made in 2003, and can make big money; one made £344,750 at Bonhams in London earlier this year. More usually they have made in the fifty and sixty thousand pound range, including this example sold at Sotheby’s in 2010 for £51k. Much more numerous are the prints, of which there may be some 600. Until Girl and Balloon made £1.042m at Sotheby’s, the Bonhams price was by some distance the record for that compositioin.

There are some odd things about the picture sold at Sotheby’s though. It was made in 2006, and not part of the original series. As far as I can see, ‘Girl and Balloon’ has usually been a ‘Day Sale’ picture. Maybe Sotheby’s looked at the Bonhams price earlier this year and thought it was worth a shot at the estimate of £200,000-£300,000. As they said in the catalogue, it was ‘unique’ in not being part of the original series, and in their eyes this made it more desirable. Although generally it’s the earlier iterations that tend to command higher prices. Another apparently unique and later (2005) version of the work made only £169k at Sotheby's in 2012. 

The picture was, said the Sotheby’s catalogue note, housed in an ‘artist’s frame’. As the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz said on the BBC this morning, that’s an unusual statement to have in a catalogue. And the frame, irrespective of what ultimately proved to be inside it, must have been in one other respect unusual too; a clunking, heavy thing with a slit in it. Will Gompertz also said that Sotheby’s twice asked the artist - through his market friendly authentication service Pest Control - whether they could open the frame, and were told no. I wonder why they didn’t just ask the owner. The provenance given by Sotheby’s was clear; the picture was acquired by the vendor directly from the artist in 2006, and therefore according to Sotheby’s was not owned by Banksy himself.

The picture was the last lot of the Evening Sale, and thus perfectly timed for Banksy to perform his trick. It was also hanging in the auction room during the sale. Most pictures get taken down from the view when Sotheby’s rearrange their salesroom for evening sales, and only a few get left on the wall. It’s possible Sotheby’s chose to leave the picture on display because it is one of those ‘iconic’ images. But such coincidences must make us wonder whether someone at Sotheby’s knew. 

Until the sale, the Banksy market was, as Naomi Rea and Javier Pes say in ArtNet, ‘down from its high in 2008. The elusive street artist’s auction record was set a decade ago, when his riff on Damien Hirst, ‘Keep It Spotless’ (2007), sold for $1.87 million at Sotheby’s New York.’ By coincidence, the final bid for Girl and Balloon equalled Banksy’s previous auction record. 

After the sale Banksy released a video, above. He said that he installed the shredder ‘a few years ago’, ‘in case it ever came to auction’. A few years ago suggests that the shredder was installed after the picture was acquired in 2006. Batteries are unlikely to last twelve years. As you can see from the screen grab below, the mechanism looks quite complex. 

That said, I don’t know how much we can rely on the video. Although the cross-section of the frame matches that seen on the painting at Sotheby’s, the shredding mechanism itself appears to be phoney; the razor blades are facing the wrong way. Maybe this was later rectified, and the painting was indeed shredded at Sotheby’s. Or somehow a pre-shredded picture was fed out of the bottom of the picture when the mechanism was triggered by remote. (Look at the video a few times, and see for yourself if the shredded part of the picture matches the unshredded part above it.)

Nevertheless, if we take Banksy at his word, that the shredder was installed ‘a few years ago’, and just assumed to be still working by the time of the auction, we can still deduce that the vendor was almost certainly aware of what was going to happen at the Sotheby’s sale. 

The next question, therefore, is what sort of vendor does that? Sotheby’s have, rightly, said that the successful bidder can walk away from their obligation to buy the work. If so, whoever consigned the work took a significant risk, and must have known that they’d potentially lose a significant amount of money. This (combined with the likelihood that the mechanism was installed after the date of acquisition in 2006) implies either that a) the vendor was already rich enough, or b) they’re close to Banksy himself, and were happy to let him do his trick. 

There is another possibility of course; that the vendor was someone with a close interest in sustaining wider Banksy prices. Here’s how it works; the contemporary art market, with its fondness for editions that are easily commodified, loves a good benchmark price. That Banksy/Warhol/Koons made £xm? This one must also be worth £xm! A cleverly consigned work here, a few bids or bidding partners there, and hey presto; you’ve got a new asset value. Even the risk of paying out some auction house commission - if you end up with your picture back - would be worth it for the new price level (and in this case the worldwide PR bonanza.) AHN’s legal adviser would like to make clear I’m not suggesting any of the above happened on this occasion. I’m just speculating.

So where does all this leave us? Immediately after the sale, I said (on Twitter) that I thought Sotheby’s were likely ‘in on it’, not least for the rapid way their specialist came out celebrating the event, and talking up the shredded picture's new, supposedly higher value. But having thought about it further, and assessed the corporate stakes involved for a publicly listed company, I can now believe they weren’t. 

More interesting is what it tells us about Banksy. Is he the anti-market hero the press have made him out to be? Jonathan Jones in The Guardian buys that theory completely. But I doubt it. Banksy depends on the market. If he didn't care about the market, he wouldn't offer the Pest Control authentication service. The only way artists like Banksy and Damien Hirst can get away with churning out the same old compositions is because they're worth something. I don't blame them for doing so - well done them; take the money and run. Artists have always done this. I would.

But let's not pretend this is about anything other than money. Banksy’s line in the video above, ‘in case it ever came to auction’, makes us want to believe that installing the shredder was a protest at the picture's possible sale. But in that case, why did he chose to shred the painting only after the hammer had fallen, and a price record reached? And why only shred half the picture, leaving it intact as an artwork?

A far better protest would have been to press the button during the auction itself. I'd like to have seen Sotheby's explain that one; an artwork self-destructing while people were actually bidding on it. That would have been much more impressive. But it would also have required a little more authenticity, and balls. Whatever you think of his art, Banksy seems as keen to trouser the cash as anyone. And so the show goes on. Bravo, Banksy.

Update - a reader writes:

Perhaps I'm giving Banksy too much credit, but I thought the whole point was to show that, no matter what an artist does, the market will simply absorb it?

Artists love to play the 'bite the hand that feeds' card, earning street cred in arty circles, while their work is simultaneously fed into the junk bond mod/con art market.  That's not new, the 'new' element was the live demonstration of how the market simply absorbed the stunt (plus the demonstration of just how shallow the definition of 'art history' has become).  The artist is no longer important to the art world.

Like you, I doubt if it was meant as a serious protest.  I think it more likely that it was merely a stunt aimed at highlighting a serious problem - the market makes the art and all 'serious' art now is made with the market in mind (even if the route to market is devious and contorted).

Update II - Colin Gleadell in The Telegraph has published an excellent take on the affair. First, he tells us he was tipped off that the lot would 'fly'. Which is interesting since it's been a long time since a Banksy flew at auction. He also noticed that the picture was so heavy it was hung on a special load-bearing baton in the auction room. 

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