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18th of October 2018

Economy



Banksy, trust and the art market — the inside story

Banksy loves frames. In the British artist’s Walled Off hotel, which stands beneath the West Bank barrier in Bethlehem, every wall is riotously decorated with his work in picture frames: giant gold frames, tiny ornate frames, sad little junk-shop frames, stalwart prim great-aunt-Nora frames. Some hold stencilled lettering reading “DOG” or “RURAL LANDSCAPE”; another houses a burnt-out image; one wrecked frame displays a half-destroyed portrait. Each is a momentary visual joke, a snap comment on our ways of seeing and expectations of art, a small exploding booby-trap for the imagination.

The notion of a frame is an ironic statement for any street artist: their illicit forays to paint in public spaces demand freedom from any constraint, social or artistic. Banksy, whose true identity has never been revealed, though he is thought to be about 45, started out as a clandestine graffiti artist in Bristol in the 1990s but shifted his activities to London around 2000. The exhilarating sudden appearance of his witty, accomplished, politically charged stencil-paintings — including the original “Girl with Balloon”, on an east London shop — carried all the shock of the new, and all the thrill of this new kind of celebrity: absolute anonymity. Graffiti had never looked so good; flicking the finger to polite convention had never been so slick.

Street art is essentially about the smashing of conventional boundaries — frames — so it was of course a frame that the prankster artist chose for his latest and most complex gesture: a remotely controlled self-destructing artwork that half-shredded itself in Sotheby’s auction room at the moment of its sale for £860,000, by means of a device fitted into the heavy gold frame. The hammer fell; an alarm sounded; the mechanism went into action. Jaws dropped, and the picture was rapidly hustled away.

Neatly videoed by the invisible artist, or his fixers, the performance has caught the imagination of the world and generated a storm of comment. Carefully organised as ever, Banksy included on his Instagram feed footage of a shredding device being fitted into a frame, “in case it was ever put up for auction”.

Banksy's artwork 'Girl with Balloon', which shredded itself after being sold for £860,000 (£1.04m with fees) at Sotheby's earlier this month © Sotheby's/PA Wire

Which, of course, he knew perfectly well it would: there is little doubt the piece was only possible because the vendor was, if not technically Banksy himself, very closely associated with him. The work was inscribed on the back, “Thanks Jo”, with a heart and a CND symbol. Could the Jo in question be Jo Brooks, Banksy’s longtime friend, publicist, interpreter and defender? She is, naturally, not saying.

Has a frame ever had so much attention? Why did the auction house not find its unusual weight suspicious? Why was it mounted on the wall of the saleroom, rather than carried in and out, as is more usual for small works? The possible length of battery-life within such a device was seriously debated on a BBC radio programme.

There was equally solemn discussion about artists destroying their own art, citing avant-garde movements, the Surrealists, Dadism. But the booby-trapped “Girl with Balloon” was surely never about destroying a work: it was the live-action creation of a new work. An installation piece — frame and all, of course — well within the tradition of work Banksy has made before. And sure enough: on Thursday, after what must have been days of furious negotiations, during which the auction house had received many offers to purchase the piece, shreds and all, came the news that the successful bidder would cough up £1.04m (£860,000 plus fees) for the piece, which will now be designated by the artist as a completely new work, under the title “Love is in the Bin”.

Sotheby’s can triumphantly claim to be the site of the world’s first artwork created at point of sale; honour is satisfied all round.

As his pranks against the establishment go, this was by far Banksy’s most sophisticated. Meticulously planned as a piece of action theatre, it enlisted perfectly choreographed social media. That has been Banksy’s authenticating medium for several years: whenever a new piece appears, Banksy will claim authorship, in true guerrilla fashion, via one digital platform or another.

Earlier stunts, politically charged or just poking fun at the art establishment, have been audacious but less well publicised. As with the Sotheby’s frolic, infiltration has been a favourite tactic. In 2003, a corny bucolic scene adorned with police incident tape appeared on the wall of Tate in London. Next, the Louvre was awarded a smiley-emoticon-faced Mona Lisa. In 2005, it took the British Museum a few days to notice that they had acquired a prehistoric cave painting of a figure pushing a shopping trolley. Staff at New York’s Museum of Natural History discovered an exhibit of a beetle with missiles on its wings; a life-size inflatable Guantánamo Bay prisoner in orange jumpsuit appeared in Disneyland.

A hoax artwork, titled 'Peckham Rock', which was surreptitiously installed in the British Museum by Banksy in 2005 © Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Banksy has grown up since those earlier pranks. Especially in the art market. By 2008 his street-cred saw celebrities clamouring for the works, and Sotheby’s New York scored his all-time auction record of $1.87m with “Keep it Spotless” — of a uniformed maid sweeping dust under the lifted edge of a Damien Hirst spot painting. Paintings, prints and 3D objects were now selling briskly at auction or through approved galleries, as well as via a semi-underground market in works illicitly stripped off walls and buildings. Bitter disputes over the ownership of such pieces, plus a growing flood of fakes and copies, led Banksy to set up his own authentication company, Pest Control.

Banksy no longer needed the infiltration tactics: he could establish his own frameworks such as 2015’s Dismaland, “a family theme park unsuitable for children”, which gave him scope for heavy-duty jokery. But guerrilla-style still suits him best, and clandestine works continue: last December, high on the West Bank wall, or more recently in Paris.

Banksy’s mockery of a market that has fed both his wallet and his capacity for ever more ambitious activities has had a happy ending this time. But the questions remain. When in 2014 Sotheby’s sold a print depicting an auctioneer selling an eager crowd an elaborate gold frame (naturally) in which is stencilled “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit”, it seemed the epitome of . . . what? A joke gone flat? A savage critic rendered toothless? Or the ultimate laugh against the “morons” actually buying the shit?

A Banksy print sold by Sotheby’s in 2014 depicting an auctioneer selling a work bearing the words 'I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit' © Sotheby's/PA Wire

Or perhaps, a different comment on the art market — which is underlined by this week’s case. Reacting to the recent antics at Sotheby’s, every commentator immediately speculated about how much more the rearranged “Girl with Balloon” would now be worth. Even before the news confirming the work’s new status, it was clear that the market could instantly — in fact eagerly — absorb whatever an artist throws at it, even if the missile was meant to be mud.

What, in fact, does this gesture tell us about the art market? A notoriously secretive and very lightly regulated market, in which the identity of both seller and buyer are protected, and even exact pricing is often obscured, can easily be pranked. Here was an anonymous artist playing the system’s own code of secrecy back against it. A neat trick. It could well be another step in the overall growing movement for greater regulation and clarity.

Or perhaps not. Every court has its licensed jester, and Banksy is the provocateur that the art establishment seems happy to accommodate. He is a special case; many of us love and admire him, and even those who don’t tip their hats to his imaginative invention. But what the event does question, profoundly, is the notion of trust on which the art world runs.

Without a register of ownership of works, without transparency of transactions or prices, without disclosure obligations, this peculiar market runs, despite its sometimes dark reputation, on a high level of trust. This is nothing new. Take, for instance, a Rembrandt. Iconic, unimpeachable. You’d think. Yet despite any amount of historical evidence, a Rembrandt is only a Rembrandt because the currently reigning authority says it is: over the centuries, works have become and un-become Rembrandts in remarkable numbers. The connoisseurship that underpins all art valuation is a system of trust.

With contemporary art, the very notion of a “work” has changed (with prints, multiples, casts, works made under licence and more), and the system of authenticity-by-consensus has run into severe problems. The authentication boards of several high-priced artists — Andy Warhol among them — have simply shut up shop under the onslaught of litigation surrounding disputed works. Even leaving aside the problem of forgery, the status of an artist’s “own” work is under threat, legally, philosophically, and therefore of course in the marketplace. Despite all this, across the world artworks trade for tens or hundreds of millions, often based on this surely tenuous principle.

With work by living artists, the trust system is bolstered by the simple fact of the artist’s say-so. But what does an apparently harmless stunt such as Banksy’s do to this deeper system? That iteration of the “Girl with Balloon” was estimated at £200,000-£300,000 because, we were told, it was not one of the thousands of cheap prints of that very well-known image but a unique work made in 2006, and dedicated in the artist’s hand. We believed that — as did the buyer — because Banksy and Pest Control said so.

But if the work was booby-trapped, essentially a giant prank, which bits of it were “genuine”? Why should the work have been the work, if the frame wasn’t the frame? Never mind that a new artwork has been created, and that the lucky buyer finds herself in possession of a piece that’s more valuable because of its notoriety: start pulling a single loose thread of this trust system and things unravel fast.

An artwork at Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem

There is still speculation about whether the auction house was complicit in the prank. In my view, Sotheby’s would never have risked the reputational damage of lampooning its own operating model in this way. It too has to operate under this same system of belief. It is normal in most fields, their spokeswoman tells me, for the auction house to take works out of their frames to inspect them. With contemporary works, however, the frame is often seen as an integral part of the whole and it isn’t routine. But sometimes potential clients ask for it. In the case of this Banksy, a request to take the picture out of the frame went to Pest Control from Sotheby’s; the answer came back no.

A strange twist to this case occurs to me. While Banksy was launching a torpedo into the credibility of the art market, and playing dangerously with issues surrounding his own — which was presumably all part of the game — he himself operates on a system of exceptional trust.

Hanging around the Walled Off hotel in December while his Alternativity play was being directed by Danny Boyle, I was vividly aware of the number of people, loyal helpers and fixers, who not only knew the artist’s identity but made his life and his projects possible, with an amazing degree of loyalty. His anonymity has lasted some three decades, while his incursions get ever bolder: in a celebrity-crazed culture, that says something about how Banksy inspires trust.

Whether his recent high jinks have affected the art market deeply, or merely ruffled its smooth surface, his genius for publicity is undimmed. In an email to me in December, he was modest about his art’s potential impact, typically tongue-in-cheek: “Most of my politics is for display purposes only.” But he knows the power of display all right.

Meanwhile at the same Sotheby’s sale, something else happened. The wonderful British painter Jenny Saville achieved a world-record price for a living female artist with her superb self-portrait “Propped”, selling at £9.5m. No tricks, no jokes, just sublimely good work. Yet the whole world is talking about a man-prank. Perhaps it is indeed true, as others have said, that we get the art market we deserve.

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

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