In October 2018, Banksy’s Girl With Balloon went to auction at Sotheby’s. Just as the hammer came down at £1.04 million, the painting began to self-destruct, leaving half the canvas in shreds. The audience were aghast and the auction went down in history, but what’s the story behind this incredible stunt? How did Banksy do it? Was Sotheby’s in on it? Who owns the work now? Read on to find the answers…
Why did Banksy shred his work?
Banksy’s work has long been in tension with the art world, poking fun at its astronomical prices and exclusivity, as demonstrated by works such as his 2006 Morons print which shows an auctioneer selling a canvas emblazoned with the words ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit’. Seemingly fed up with the inflated price tags his work is given on the secondary market – which he does not profit from – his next dig at the art world would become one of his most watched stunts ever. The canvas of Girl With Balloon was originally given by Banksy to a friend of his after the Barely Legal exhibition in 2006 which caused controversy and made him even more well known around the world. Banksy claims that it was at this time that he installed a remote-controlled shredder into the gilt frame – itself a nod to the elitist traditions of the art world – in case the piece ever went to auction.
How did he do it?
Once the gavel dropped on the successful bid, the work began sliding out of the bottom of the frame and came out the other side in shreds, to the sound of a siren and gasps from the audience. The painting stopped when it was halfway through the shredder, leaving the top intact which, according to a video Banksy posted online after the event, was not meant to happen – apparently “In rehearsals it worked every time”. The video was accompanied by a quote from Picasso that read, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge” and has accrued over 16million views since it was first posted.
What was the reaction?
Speaking to the press after the sale, Sotheby’s senior director Alex Branczik famously commented “It appears we just got Banksy-ed”. The auction house proceeded to describe the shredded painting as “the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction” and informed the world of the work’s new title, Love is in the Bin which was re-authenticated by Pest Control.
The buyer, an anonymous European collector, decided to proceed with the sale, stating that “When the hammer came down last week and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realise that I would end up with my own piece of art history.” Many art world commentators speculated that the piece had risen in value significantly after such a public stunt – especially as it failed to be fully shredded – and one collector purportedly proceeded to shred his own Banksy artwork to increase its value (which may have backfired…) The work then went on public display at Sotheby’s before being presented to its new owner, attracting crowds of Banksy fans and critics who came to see the emperor’s new clothes for themselves.
The stunt gained many column inches as commentators rushed to put in their two cents on the event, including dealer and columnist for artnet, Kenny Schacter, who wrote, “In a realm as chockablock with legerdemain as the art world, what matters, at the end of the day, is that the audience enjoyed the show. With his star turn at Sotheby’s, Banksy gave us all a command performance.”
Were Sotheby’s in on it?
Many have speculated that the auction house was in fact in on the trick, claiming that it would have been impossible not to notice the weight and bulk of the inbuilt shredder in the frame, which was so ridiculously oversized to begin with. However, this has been countered by those saying that Pest Control, who were called in to authenticate the work, insisted that it could not be removed without causing damage to the artwork itself so the specialists could not investigate further.
Another clue is the fact that the painting was the last thing to be auctioned that night, providing the perfect headline act. Some have said this proves Sotheby’s collusion – if it had been placed in the middle of the auction it would have caused too much confusion and distraction from the rest of the works on sale. However, this too cannot be confirmed, with insiders saying that the painting was placed last because of annoyance with the consignor (thought to be Banksy himself, using a third party for the process) who had insisted on having the piece in the evening sale, when it should have been in the day sale. As a result, it was put in the last slot, one of the least favourable in terms of the running order of an auction.
Finally, the nail in the coffin of this theory comes from a statement by Banksy’s former gallerist and collaborator Steve Lazarides who said: “I worked for him for 12 years, the idea of him colluding with an institution to pull off a stunt is the complete antithesis to his philosophy.”