Street Theater? A Famous Banksy Self-Destructs Live as Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sales Fetch $91.5 Million in London
The British street artist and the auction house brought some calculated spectacle to the evening's proceedings.
Sotheby’s managed to squeeze two sales and a prank into its Frieze week evening auction of contemporary art on Friday. The first sale consisted of 25 works from the estate of US management consultant David Teiger, all of which sold for a top estimate of £35.9 million ($47.1 million). A well-respected figure on the European circuit, Teiger bought new art from the leading dealers of the ’90s and the aughts—rarely, if ever, at auction.
The sale got off to an electric start with a 2002 painting by German artist Kai Althoff. Modestly estimated between £80,000 and £120,000, it attracted bidding from several dealers, including Nicolai Frahm, before racing to a record £574,000 ($753,000). (Prices include buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)
Another German artist to attract competition was painter Daniel Richter, whose Jeans (2002) saw his European dealer, Thaddaeus Ropac, locked in conflict with several Asian bidders before falling to one of the latter for a triple estimate record of £442,000 ($579,904).
The selection Sotheby’s made for the London sale was understandably UK-centric, with seven of the top 10 most valuable lots being by British artists. Top of the list was Jenny Saville’s massive exercise in painting flesh—Propped—a naked self-portrait made when she was graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 1992. It was acquired shortly afterward for about £4,000 ($5,248) by Charles Saatchi, who took ownership of all her work in return for a free studio space and a stipend to live on.
After she became a star of the 1997 “Sensation” exhibition, she was signed by Gagosian from whom Teiger bought this painting. Tonight, it surpassed her previous record of £6.8 million—for a painting that sold to the Long Museum in Shanghai in 2016—selling for £9.5 million ($12.4 million) to an anonymous buyer relaying bids through Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and Modern Art, Helena Newman.
Following the Saville came an appealing David Hockney drawing of Celia Birtwell, the wife of fashion designer Ossie Clark, which was chased by London dealer Offer Waterman before selling on the phone above estimate for £298,000 ($390,976).
There was then a train of fashionable Brit art names from Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Hurvin Anderson, Cecily Brown, and Glenn Brown, as well as a neon by Tracey Emin and a pot by Grayson Perry—which all sold mostly within estimates.
The only blip in the Teiger sale was a drawing by John Currin, which failed to find a bidder with an £800,000 low estimate. At the end of the sale, with the room in chaos after an alarm went off (see below), it was re-offered and sold for a bargain £370,000 ($485,440).
‘We Were Banksy’d’
This second section of the evening saw a healthy 57 out of 65 works sell for £33.86 million ($44.4 million), just clearing the low estimate of £29.2 million when the buyer’s premium is added.
Unlike Christie’s, which segregated Italian art into a separate sale, Sotheby’s elected to include all of its Italian art in the mixed contemporary sale, thus ending a long tradition which it began in the ’90s. Reasons ranged from dwindling returns to the impact of the Teiger collection on the sales schedule to the desire to market Italian art within a global context.
The change has certainly come at a moment of reassessment in the booming Italian art market. Three of the most valuable works by Fontana, Castellani, and Manzoni were not sold and the highest-priced Fontana, which sold to US dealer Neal Meltzer for £2.9 million ($3.8 million), was on the low estimate.
The highest price of this section was an above-estimate £4.85 million ($6.36 million) given by a US collector for Boogeyman (2010), a large figurative painting by Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie. And a notable record £1.2 million ($1.57 million) was paid for a colored drawing by Georg Baselitz from his “Hero” painting series in the ’60s. One of the unsuccessful bidders was dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who is staging a Baselitz show of historic work in his London gallery. Ropac did, however, acquire a glitter portrait of the artist by Andy Warhol below estimate for £802,000 ($1.05 million).
The sale ended on a note of hilarity when first, a large yellow painting by street artist KAWS, who has never been included in an evening sale in London before, sold to a Taiwanese dealer for a quadruple low estimate record £1 million ($1.4 million). That was followed by none other than Banksy, whose unique spray-painted Girl with a Balloon—a gift from the artist to the seller in 2006, apparently—tripled estimates to sell for £1 million ($1.4 million).
But the sale was not included in Sotheby’s price list. As soon as the painting sold and Sotheby’s staff began conducting its usual self-congratulatory applause, it self-destructed: That is, the painting fell out from its frame, shredding itself into pieces in the process and setting off a security alarm.
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It turned out to be a prank, of course. Shortly after the auction, Banksy posted a photo of the shredding, showing the faces of stunned auction-goers, to his Instagram account. And on Saturday afternoon, the anonymous artist added a short video, which appears to show him building the shredder into the frame—and the moment it went into action (see above). “A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting,” Banksy writes in the video. “In case it was ever put up for auction.” The video has accrued more than 1.6 million views as of this update.
But was Sotheby’s in on the gag? Was it just coincidence that the picture was carefully placed on view in the absurdly thick frame and timed to be the last lot of the sale?
“We were Banksy’d,” declared a bemused Alex Branczyk, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe. An under-bidder I spoke with also appeared to be completely unaware that the ruse was staged. Meanwhile, downstairs, a man in a flat cap looking not unlike Banksy’s alter ego Robin Gunningham was being apprehended by security staff near the exit in a noisy kerfuffle. Pure theater. Turns out Joe Strummer had it wrong: You don’t need news groups to turn rebellion into money—just a famous street artist and a billion-dollar auction house.
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