British street artist Banksy appeared to pull off one of his most spectacular pranks, with a frame that shredded his “Girl With Balloon” after it sold.
LONDON — British street artist Banksy pulled off one of his most spectacular pranks Friday night, when one of his trademark paintings appeared to self-destruct at Sotheby’s in London after selling for $1.4 million at auction.
The work, “Girl With Balloon,” a 2006 spray paint on canvas, was the last lot of Sotheby’s “Frieze Week” contemporary-art sale. After competition between two telephone bidders, it was hammered down by auctioneer Oliver Barker for 1 million pounds, more than three times the estimate and a new auction high for a work solely by the artist, according to Sotheby’s.
“Then we heard an alarm go off,” Morgan Long, head of art investment at the London-based advisory firm Fine Art Group, who was sitting in the front row, said Saturday. “Everyone turned round, and the picture had slipped through its frame.”
The painting, mounted on a wall close to a row of Sotheby’s staff members, had been shredded, or at least partially shredded, by a remote-control mechanism on the back of the frame.
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A photo posted on the private Instagram account of Caroline Lang, chairman of Sotheby’s Switzerland, showed a man in the salesroom operating an electronic device hidden inside a bag. Long said she later saw a man being removed by Sotheby’s security staff.
“We’ve been Banksy-ed,” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, said at a news conference. Branczik added that he was “not in on the ruse.”
Sotheby’s has not named the client whose $1.4 million purchase was destroyed. International auction houses do not divulge the identities of their buyers unless the person requests it.
But Sotheby’s said in a statement Saturday: “The successful bidder was a private collector, bidding through a Sotheby’s staff member on the phone. We are currently in discussions about next steps.”
Joanna Brooks, director of JBPR, who answers media enquiries on behalf of Banksy, declined to comment on whether the artist himself had been removed from the salesroom.
On Saturday, Banksy posted a video on his Instagram account, recording the confusion at Sotheby’s auction, following a sequence purporting to show the artist hiding a shredder inside a gilt-wood picture frame.
“A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” Banksy wrote in the video. “In case it was ever put up for auction.”
Sotheby’s did not divulge the identity of the seller. According to the catalog, “Girl With Balloon” had been “acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 2006.”
Suspicious minds wondered whether Sotheby’s was completely taken by surprise.
The frame would presumably have been rather heavy and thick for its size, something an auction-house specialist or art handler might have noticed. Detailed condition reports are requested by the would-be buyers of high-value art. Unusually, this relatively small Banksy had been hung on a wall, rather than placed on a podium for the sale. And the artwork was also the last lot in the auction. “If it had been offered earlier in the sale, it would have caused disruption and sellers would have complained about that,” Long said.
Banksy has captured headlines for more than a decade, with his daring subversive artistic stunts. His identity remains a secret. In 2008, the newspaper The Mail on Sunday suggested Banksy was Robin Gunningham, a theory for which academic researchers have found corroboration. Banksy and the Gunningham family in Bristol have denied the connection.
As the artwork shredded itself, a seemingly unperturbed Barker, the auctioneer and Sotheby’s European chairman, said, “It’s a brilliant Banksy moment, this. You couldn’t make it up, could you?”