Banksy self-destructs: what now for the art market?

Economic genius’, says Bloomberg, ‘Banksy’s greatest work’ raves The Guardian, while the FT declares it ‘leaves credibility of the art market in shreds’. Whatever your opinion of street artist Banksy’s self-destructing artwork, the stunt has clearly sent shockwaves across the art world.

It all began on the evening of Friday 5 October at Sotheby’s London during its Frieze Week contemporary art sale. Banksy’s ‘Girl with Balloon’, a 2006 spray paint and acrylic work on framed canvas, had just sold for a monumental £1,042,000, a new record for the artist. Mere seconds after the hammer came down, Banksy’s balloon girl began to pass through a shredder hidden in the picture frame to the shock of onlookers. “It appears we just got Banksy-ed”, Sotheby’s Senior Director and Head of Contemporary Art, Alex Branczik, told a news conference after the auction, assuring them he was “not in on the ruse”.

Shortly after that fateful evening, punters began speculating on what the incident meant for the art market and the nature of art more broadly. Jonathan Jones of The Guardian embraced the act of ‘artistic terrorism’ and took it as a sign that ‘the revolution has reached Mayfair’. At the end of one of the busiest weeks in the London art market calendar, when international collectors descend on the capital for the Frieze art fair, Banksy had the last laugh. ‘For once, an artist has genuinely pissed all over the system that reduces art to nothing but a commodity’, Jones mused.

Others made a more calculated appraisal of the impact Banksy’s prank will have on the value of his art. Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky is confident the half-destructed stencil work will only increase in value given the very public nature of the incident and the video footage of the onlookers in the auction room whose jaws dropped to the floor when the shredder was activated. The story, Bershidsky believes, has achieved a separate market value, ‘something notoriously difficult to do, more difficult even than pricing pure performance art’.

Not all commentators are as enthused about Banksy’s latest lark. James Pickford of the FT cautioned that it threatens to have an ‘insidious effect’ on the auction house model. At a time when auction houses face scrutiny for a lack of transparency over their relationships with collectors, dealers and gallerists and regarding the identity of buyers and sellers, Pickford warns the Banksy incident will only heighten suspicions.

Love or hate Banksy, there is no denying he has succeeded once again in holding up a mirror to the art world.

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