Sotheby's Gets Banksy'ed at Contemporary Art Auction in London

The British street artist and the auction house brought some calculated spectacle to the evening's proceedings.

The sale of 5 October 2018 ended on a note of hilarity when an unique spray-painted Girl with a Balloon by Banksy —a gift from the artist to the seller in 2006, has been sold for £1,042,000 ($1.4 million), tying the artist’s record in pounds at auction previously achieved in 2008.

But the sale was not included in Sotheby’s price list. As soon as the painting sold and Sotheby’s staff began conducting its usual self-congratulatory applause, it self-destructed: That is, the painting fell out from its frame, shredding itself into pieces in the process and setting off a security alarm.

Banksy's Girl with a Balloon appeared to shred itself after selling for $1.4 million at Sotheby's on Friday night. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

It turned out to be a prank, of course. Shortly after the auction, Banksy posted a photo of the shredding, showing the faces of stunned auction-goers, to his Instagram account. And on Saturday afternoon, the anonymous artist added a short video, which appears to show him building the shredder into the frame—and the moment it went into action (see above). “A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” Banksy writes in the video. “In case it was ever put up for auction.” The video has accrued more than 1.6 million views as of this update. 

But was Sotheby’s in on the gag? Was it just coincidence that the picture was carefully placed on view in the absurdly thick frame and timed to be the last lot of the sale?

“We were Banksy’d,” declared a bemused Alex Branczyk, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe. An under-bidder I spoke with also appeared to be completely unaware that the ruse was staged. Meanwhile, downstairs, a man in a flat cap looking not unlike Banksy’s alter ego Robin Gunninghamwas being apprehended by security staff near the exit in a noisy kerfuffle. Pure theater.

by Colin Gleadell

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