Last October, seconds after it sold at Sotheby’s in London for $1.4 million, Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon” self-destructed as a shredder hidden in the picture’s frame began grinding up the image from inside. It was a perfectly timed trick by the reclusive graffiti artist, who immediately posted a video about his art punk online and renamed the piece “Love Is in the Bin.”
Onlookers were stunned. Later, an auction house official said in a statement what was by then likely obvious to everyone: “It appears we just got Banksy-ed.”
Harvard’s Mary Schneider Enriquez wasn’t surprised.
“I think this showed his control and manipulation of us in the most brilliant manner possible,” said Enriquez, Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museums. “He took his practice a step further in the sanctity of this heated auction house market and said, ‘Look at what I’ve done to you.’”
Experts agree that the ruined image by the anonymous artist with a flair for the dramatic and for tagging prominent buildings and landmarks with his politically charged satirical works may well be worth more now in its partially shredded state (the shredder stalled halfway through the job). Some even think the prank may have doubled the picture’s price. But how did the work of this street artist turned trickster and gallery darling become so valuable in the first place? For many, the answer involves mystique. Banksy is renowned as much for his antics and anonymity as for his art, they say. His skill, combined with his secret identity and the stealth surrounding his practice, have helped fuel his reputation and the interest of the art world.
“At some level Banksy’s work originally had been about doing hidden graffiti, and he’s incredibly talented. Then there is the phenomenon of who he is. The mystery plays into this whole idea of the genius of the artist,” said Enriquez. “This to me seems like the perfect game he played on some level,” she added of his Sotheby’s stunt. “The flip side of that is because the market is the way it is, his trick makes [the piece] more valuable. It makes me chuckle and also recognize there’s an absurdity to this art world right now that’s both painful and ridiculous.”
If Banksy’s “ruined” work were to come back on the market, it could fetch a figure close to $3 million — but it still sits at the low end of the stratospheric art market scale. Works from old masters to contemporary hands and even a painting by a living artist have set a steady stream of record-breaking sales in recent months. In November, Edward Hopper’s 1929 painting “Chop Suey” sold for $91.9 million at Christie’s auction house. Two days later, David Hockney’s 1972 “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures”) sold for $90.3 million, the highest amount ever paid for a work by a living artist. In November 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” or “Savior of the World,” a portrait of Christ dating to about 1500, fetched a record-smashing $450.3 million.
To get at exactly how the market drives up such numbers, the Gazette spoke with some experts in the field.
A historic perspective
When considering the value of a work of art, factors such as rarity, quality, condition, and provenance all play a role. A piece such as “Salvator Mundi” commands a high price tag because it is both unique and the product of an artist universally considered a truly great master. But the question of who formerly owned a painting is also important to its final price tag, said Soyoung Lee, the chief curator at the Harvard Art Museums. The fame or reputation of a previous owner can often elevate an artwork’s worth, she said, inspire more interest in the piece, and help confirm its authenticity.
Today, celebrity owners regularly generate buzz in the market when they sell art from their collections. The chance for a buyer to know they hold some direct connection to the rich and famous can be a powerful driver. For a historic perspective on that trend Lee, a former curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, looked to China and its imperial court, where the value of a painting or scroll often had as much to do with whom it may have belonged to as with its quality. And those previous owners, Lee noted, weren’t shy about adding their own flourish to a great work.
“In the Western tradition the idea that somebody other than the artist would mark the painting is blasphemy. That would ruin the value of the art,” she said. “But with Chinese painting — scrolls, for example — if produced for the emperor, it would have his seal right on the painting,” augmenting its value. Over time, she explained, as the work traded hands, subsequent owners — often artists or critics of note — would add their own seals directly onto the piece.
“The more marks you accumulated and the more you accumulated of people of worthy names,” Lee said, “the more the value of that painting increased.”