Not a shred of doubt: Banksy destroyed the art game
He shook the art world from the outside with this stunt, and the irony is that it's made his work even more valuable
It’s a telling comment on the art market that the thing most people will remember about Frieze week will be a self-destructing Banksy painting at Sotheby’s in London.
For the last lot of its evening sale last Friday, the auction house offered a unique version of Banksy’s Girl with Balloon, voted Britain’s most popular painting last year, with a £300,000 estimate.
The last lot in the sale is usually an anticlimax, but I had been tipped off that it would “fly”, so I stayed to watch, and as I did I noticed a distinctively attired man in a white beret, sunglasses and a gold earring, entering the back of the saleroom. The bids came fast and furious until they hit a record £1m.
Then, as staff were indulging in their customary applause, the Banksy started to slip out of its frame, shredding the painting, and an alarm went off. Amid astonishment and laughter, two porters removed the painting.
As I walked to the exit, there was the man with the beret again – this time in the grip of security staff and demanding to see the manager. Was it, I wondered, the mysterious Robin Gunningham, alias Banksy, caught red-handed with the electronic device that had activated the shredder?
The following day, after images of the event had gone viral, Banksy’s Instagram account released footage of the shredder being installed; clearly, it had all been a setup.
Everyone at Sotheby’s professed not to know, but seasoned observers spotted a calculated PR stunt. Its timing at the end of the sale, for instance, and the frame was so heavy it had had to be hung on a load-bearing wooden strip.
But what was the purpose of the stunt? The irony of all the ensuing publicity, which will not be lost on the artist, is that Banksy is still an outsider in the art world. Everyone enjoys his humour and his adman graphics skills, but they don’t all take him seriously as an artist.
The auctioneers may sell him because he makes money, but there was not a single Banksy work in either of the Frieze art fairs last week, and there are no works by him in the Tate collection.
And what are the odds against Banksy ever representing Britain at the Venice Biennale?
So here’s the rub. If the stunt was intended as a critique of the commercial value of art, why do it with something that has sold for millions and might be worth more as a result?
Whether the value of the work will be affected will remain unclear until it is resold. But opportunistic Banksy dealers say it will go up and that it will affect the price of all his work – presumably because of the added notoriety – and they are in a position to orchestrate that in their galleries and on websites.
As for the buyer, Sotheby’s hesitated to list the work as sold after the sale in case they refused to pay for damaged work, which they were within their rights to do. As the work is now listed as sold, it’s clear the buyer has agreed to pay for it in its new condition. For a collector, it will carry enormous kudos.
It took place within a week of sales dominated by British artists revered by museums and Biennale curators. Francis Bacon made the highest price of the week at Christie’s with £19.9m. A jazzy abstract by Bridget Riley bought in 1997 for £18,400 sold for £1.7m, while paintings by Howard Hodgkin and Hurvin Anderson and a sculpture by Antony Gormley all far exceeded estimates.
At Sotheby’s, works by art stars of the 1990s and 2000s – Chris Ofili, Peter Doig, Cecily Brown, Glenn Brown, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry – were all swept up so comfortably it was hard to believe that Brexit was just around the corner.
The highlight of the week was Jenny Saville’s two-metre nude self-portrait, Propped, which tripled estimates to make a record for a living female artist at £9.5m. Propped originally cost about £1,000 when Charles Saatchi discovered Saville, shortly after her graduation from Glasgow School of Art in 1992.
Her status as the figurative heir to Lucian Freud and a banner-holder for feminism soon turned her into one of the most sought-after young artists of her day.
There was nothing gimmicky about that sale, yet she, and the rest of the art market, were upstaged by what can only be seen as an elaborate and highly successful self-promotional prank.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2018)