I really wanted to put the Banksy Prank behind me, moving to more substantive matters (like recently opened exhibitions that have engaged or vexed me), but the Sotheby’s plot thickened on Friday with a revelation by Jan Dalley, arts editor of the Financial Times (FT), that suggests the likely identity of the seller of “Girl with Balloon” (aka “Love is in the Bin”).
Milking the publicity cow for all it’s worth, Sotheby’s, London, gave the mangled minorpiece the masterpiece-treatment (à la “Salvator Mundi”)—another work in compromised condition): It grandly mounted the helpless waif on a pedestal, to be ogled last weekend before leaving the premises.
Here, with stanchions, is the renamed $1.4-million painting, doing the full Leonardo (as seen on Sotheby’s Twitter feed):
It’s your last chance to see Banksy’s newly titled ‘Love is in the Bin’, on view in our London galleries today from noon until 5pm. Final entry is at 4.40pm #LoveIsInTheBin #Banksy pic.twitter.com/SsFlJV51oJ
— Sotheby’s (@Sothebys) October 14, 2018
As I wrote here, I thought it was “reasonable to believe that the seller was Banksy’s friend,” given the information in the catalogue that he or she had “acquired [“Girl with Balloon“] directly from the artist…in 2006.” I asked Sotheby’s to tell me what was written in the dedication on the reverse of the painting. (The existence of the dedication was also reported in the catalogue entry.)
When the auction house’s European head of Contemporary Art, Alex Branczik, informed me that the dedication said, “Thanks ❤️ ☮️ Banksy,” I followed up with the obvious question:
Did the dedication on the reverse of the Banksy canvas include the name of the person to whom it was dedicated?
Although I never got an answer to that, Dalley apparently did—if not from Sotheby’s, then from someone who had examined the reverse of the canvas.
Here’s what Jan wrote for the FT:
The work was inscribed on the back, “Thanks Jo,” with a heart and a CND symbol. [The “CND symbol” (more commonly known as the peace symbol) was originally “the logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament,” as Wikipedia helpfully informed me.]
Could the Jo in question be Jo Brooks, Banksy’s longtime friend, publicist, interpreter and defender? She is, naturally, not saying.
If the seller was, in fact, the guardian of Banksy’s secret identity and his reputation, we can reasonably surmise that she was not caught off-guard by what happened. We still don’t know whether the anonymous buyer was a co-conspirator in this caper, bidding up the soon-to-be-damaged (or, as Sotheby’s would have it, reborn) work to the point where unsuspecting rivals, if any, dropped out.
One thing we do know is that this supposed record auction price for Banksy (tying his 2008 record in pounds) should be accompanied not only by a CND symbol but also by a big…
Although Banksy’s “performance” might have seemed amusing at the time, it could cause problems down the road, if copycats are inspired to stage their own auction-house “interventions” or if humorless regulators take it upon themselves to cast a critical eye on this shredding of auction-house protocol.
Which brings me back to my previous characterization of Banksy’s prank as “a clever metaphor for the self-sabotaging auction houses, which, through opaque side deals, secret pre-arrangements and favored treatment for those who enter into such compacts have damaged their credibility as a transparent public marketplace where buyers can feel reasonably confident that they are paying fair market value, equitably arrived at, on a level playing field.”
Dalley’s trenchant analysis of Banksy’s caper struck the same note, as did Christopher Knight‘s in the LA Times.
Here’s Dalley’s takeaway:
What, in fact, does this gesture tell us about the art market? A notoriously secretive and very lightly regulated market, in which the identity of both seller and buyer are protected, and even exact pricing is often obscured, can easily be pranked. Here was an anonymous artist playing the system’s own code of secrecy back against it. A neat trick. It could well be another step in the overall growing movement for greater regulation and clarity. Or perhaps not….What the event does question, profoundly, is the notion of trust on which the art world runs…
…or sometimes doesn’t.
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