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Banksy’s Hanky-Panky at Sotheby’s: Letting the Hot Air Out of Punctured “Balloon”—Part I

Parts II and III are here and here.

Banksy‘s elaborately orchestrated send-up of the auction market—contriving to have his $1.4-million “Girl with Balloon” self-mutilate at the fall of the hammer on Friday at Sotheby’s London—is the subversive gift that keeps on giving.

Here’s Sotheby’s image of the painting (which might have been more appropriately titled, “Girl without Balloon”) in its intact state:

Banksy, “Girl with Balloon,” spray paint and acrylic on canvas, 2006

The absurdity of this outlandish incident was amplified in the aftermath, as commentators strained to make sense of the astonishing act and its ramifications. Let me join their ranks by observing that this attention-grabbing gambit could spectacularly backfire, not only on the auction house but also on the artist. If it wasn’t perpetrated by the work’s creator, Friday’s “prank” might be more properly called “vandalism”—no laughing matter if someone else—another artist, a protester, a disturbed person, or all of the above—is inspired to make a similarly destructive copycat “statement.”

If this was Banksy’s mischievous attempt to burst the auction-house balloon, he may have self-sabotaged by giving Sotheby’s an opportunity to seize victory from the jaws of the shredder. The auction house embraced Banksy’s “surprise intervention” as “art history in the making in front of the eyes of a packed New Bond Street saleroom,” in the words of Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s European head of Contemporary Art, as quoted in the postsale press release.

How he could find something to celebrate in the destruction of an artwork in his care may be partly explained by Branczik‘s prior priorities: Before joining the auction house in 2004, he had “trained as an Equities Analyst at UBS Investment Bank,” according to his Sotheby’s bio. (To be fair, he does hold a master’s degree with distinction in art history from London’s Courtauld Institute.)

Alex Branczik

Speaking of financial analysis, art-market mavens have been spinning the shredding as a savvy gambit that “Might Boost His [Banksy’s] Prices,” in the words of the NY Times‘ headline for reporter Scott Reyburn‘s analysis. Kelly Crow and Michael Wright of the Wall Street Journal went much further, reporting that “dealers have surmised that the winning bidder, who remains anonymous [as do the “surmising” dealers], likely scored an unexpected windfall, since collectors tend to pay a premium for works that carry notoriety or a memorable story. In the long run, the work’s value could easily double[?!?], dealers said [they would say that], and its value is unlikely to dissipate.”

Make a scene to make a profit? I wouldn’t count on that as a sound investment concept.

According to the auction catalogue, the sold(?) painting was “in [the] artist’s frame,” which (as we now know) contained the weapons of art destruction. Did no Sotheby’s employee ever stop to wonder why the artist had chosen for this simple image an elaborate, gaudy frame that was improbably deep, front to back?

Here’s an image used by Sotheby’s on its website (with permission from its source, Casterline|Goodman Gallery, which has also granted me reproduction permission) that clearly shows the frame’s freakish fatness:

Image Courtesy of Casterline|Goodman Gallery

This screenshot from a video, now viewed more than 10 million times, on Banksy’s Instagram website, shows the blades being installed (presumably by him) inside the frame:

Screenshot from Banksy’s Instagram video

The auction house steadfastly maintains that “we had no prior knowledge of the event and were not in any way involved,” as its spokesperson in New York assured me yesterday, notwithstanding the barrage of skeptical commentary assuming the contrary. Even if someone at Sotheby’s had indeed been clued in, the house might be legally well advised to deny any knowledge, so as not to be deemed as possibly complicit in fraud.

In typical auction-speak, Sotheby’s had hyped the Banksy, prior to its sale, as an “undeniably iconic and culturally formidable image.” After the image became considerably less “formidable,” Sotheby’s gamely exploited this bizarre incident for publicity value, using it as the lead story yesterday on its homepageSotheby’s Gets Banksy’ed at Contemporary Art Auction in London.

But the event, however risible, is not something that Sotheby’s can responsibly make light of: If the auction house winks at vandalism of consigned property, how can it take a strong stance against others who might decide to physically attack works on its premises?

That said, the opposite course of action would be equally unpalatable: If the auction house were to seek civil damages and/or press criminal charges against Banksy (and/or whoever activated the frame’s mechanism) for what might be interpreted as an illegal act, much of the artworld would surely take umbrage.

However you look at it, this high-profile “prank” was a lose-lose for Sotheby’s. The auction house’s best bet might be to negotiate a confidential settlement with the artist, the unidentified seller and the “successful” (or not) bidder, and try to move on.

Sotheby’s has yet to answer questions (including mine) about whether the Banksy sale will actually be consummated and, if so, what the terms of that transaction will be, now that the work is no longer what it was before the hammer came down. All that the auction house’s New York spokesperson would tell me and others is: “We are in discussion with the successful bidder about next steps.” (I’m also in touch with the London press office. If I learn more, you’ll learn more.)

COMING SOON: My further speculation on what happened, why it happened, what it all means.

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