'Devolved Parliament' came in equal to a work by Basquiat, and dwarfed interest in another monkey painting—by Francis Bacon.
There is absolutely no doubt about what stole the thunder yesterday evening at Sotheby’s Frieze week contemporary art auction—and it was a bunch of monkeys.
Devolved Parliament, the massive painting by Banksy of chimpanzees sitting, chewing, scratching, and just generally being chimpanzees in Britain’s House of Commons sold for a record £9.9 million ($12.1 million). That total was nearly five times the high estimate of £2 million ($2.47 million). It was also by far a record for a work by the street artist at auction, which was previously the $1.87 million paid for Keep It Spotless at Sotheby’s New York way back in 2008.
Laughter, seemingly representing both delight and disbelief, spread throughout the room during the nearly 13-minute bidding battle.
Among the early bidders were Warhol/Basquiat/Hirst trader-collector Jose Mugrabi and Turkish banker Halit Cingillioglu, who first took the price beyond the low £1.5 million estimate. But they were soon submerged beneath a torrent of telephone bids—and one persistent bidder at the back of the room—until the Banksy fell to the phone manned by Emma Baker, Sotheby’s head of sale.
The painting was the top lot of the sale, coming equal with Pyro by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which performed less remarkably, selling within estimate. “It’s a big moment,” said Sotheby’s Alex Branczik after the sale, “when Banksy shares top price with Basquiat.”
He might have added that it is a big moment when a Banksy painting of chimpanzees sold for more than a Francis Bacon of chimpanzees. Bacon’s 1951 painting, Figure with Monkey, sold just above its estimate for £2.8 million ($3.4 million) this evening to British art advisor Wentworth Beaumont.
Gallery workers display Banksy's 'Devolved Parliament' prior to a photo call at Sotheby's on September 27, 2019 in London, England. Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images.
It had been suggested that Banksy himself was the seller of the painting because the work had changed—it was darker in tone, with a few bananas added—since it was last exhibited. But Sotheby’s claimed that Banksy had simply asked the owner if he could make the changes. (This side plot amounted to a slightly less intriguing mystery than the one inspired by Banksy’s trick artwork Girl with Balloon, which self-destructed in the auction room last year after being sold, gaining worldwide press attention.)
The artist himself addressed the rumors on Instagram after the sale, posting an image featuring a quote from the late art critic Robert Hughes decrying high auction prices, and offering the laconic caption: “Record price for a Banksy painting set at auction tonight. Shame I didn’t still own it.”
So the seller remains a mystery.
by Colin Gleadell