Here Are 8 Major Questions Still Unanswered About Banksy’s Sotheby’s Prank

What really happened, and who knew ahead of time?

Surprised onlookers react as Banksy's Girl With a Balloon self-destructs at Sotheby's.
Surprised onlookers react as Banksy's Girl With a Balloon self-destructs at Sotheby's.

We’re having a lot of fun with Banksy’s viral art shredding prank, which took place exactly one week ago at Sotheby’s London and has had the world atwitter ever since. Fun as it is, though, it does raise some major questions that remain to be answered.

We know, we know: So much digital ink has been spilled about this already. What more is there to say? But as it stands, the whole thing still doesn’t add up!

Details are slowly trickling out. Yesterday, the auction house released a statement that the street artist/prankster had officially renamed the now partially destroyed work, and that the buyer—an unnamed woman—had decided to keep it.

At Sotheby’s, it seems, all sides have won: the collector gets, if not the exact thing she wanted, a great story and a work that will now presumably only escalate in value; Banksy gets another big price (the highest in 10 years and now the second highest on record) and another major achievement; Sotheby’s gets a ton of extra publicity and doesn’t have to give anything—or pay anyone—back.

Nevertheless, everyone still wants to know just exactly how this whole unbelievable art auction action came together. The answers have more than trivial consequences. Here are the speculation-filled questions still on our minds.

 

1. So… Who’s Getting Fired?

From the moment Girl With Balloon came to life in the auction room, observers have suspected that Sotheby’s must have been in on it. Its slick press release touting the importance of the now rechristened artwork only furthers those suspicions. Yet some auction insiders suggest that as a publicly traded company, a stunt like this would be too big a risk because Sotheby’s has to answer to shareholders.

A funny thing about the story as it stands now is how the fact that nobody believes Sotheby’s when it says that it wasn’t in on the prank actually works to the auction house’s favor, saving it from having to answer some really important questions.

Imagine: If Sotheby’s didn’t know, this would be one serious security breach. Someone hid an electronic device in a frame and remotely activated it. That’s a pretty big potential category of threats! Better hope that someone is scanning lots for remotely detonated self-destruct devices in the future!

Asked for comment, a Sotheby’s representative told artnet News: “We don’t discuss our security procedures but I can tell you that at no point was anyone in any danger.”

2. Insurance Implications?

A boring but important topic: Having unsuspectingly auctioned off a potentially booby-trapped work of art has got to raise all kinds of questions for insurers, right?

If you take seriously the notion that Sotheby’s didn’t notice the shredder embedded in the painting, how thoroughly can it have assessed the risks associated with any of their works?

Imagine: You sold an artwork you own for $1.4 million that self-destructs in front of everyone. That has got to raise your premiums, right?

When we asked if there were any insurance implications or if Sotheby’s had received any related questions from clients or insurers, the rep said there have been none.

3. Doesn’t This Erode Client Trust?

Trying to make its own PR out of uncertainty about Sotheby’s role in this whole affair, earlier this week Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles flagged an upcoming Banksy in its November sale with the e-mail subject line: “Guaranteed Not to Shred.” The release included a comment from Darren Julien: “We can’t guarantee that our Banksy’s [sic] will shred or explode but they will sell to the highest bidder.”

The whole fracas puts a spotlight on a note in the Sotheby’s condition report: “Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby’s is merely a subjective, qualified opinion.” That “qualified opinion” just got a lot more qualified!

It would be nice to know if any of the potential bidders on the lot actually did avail themselves of their own inspection. The fact that, as far as we know (or at least, as far as anybody is saying), nobody suspected this stunt in advance highlights how much trust potential buyers put in an auction house to validate something.

If we were clients, and took seriously Sotheby’s official claim it was in the dark, we’d definitely be taking very little for granted in the future…

Asked if any concerned clients had reached out with these types of questions, Sotheby’s said no.

4. Who Was That Mystery Seller?

Supposedly, the work was acquired by the seller directly from the artist, Banksy himself, in 2006. That’s all we know.

It seems that this wild tale has a happy ending for Sotheby’s, with the winning bidder being so chill about it and all. Regardless, that doesn’t settle the matter. With more than a million pounds on the line, all risked on the final buyer being cool, wouldn’t the auction house have some very serious questions for whoever gave them the work? We would!

In that way, it’s worth saying that the whole thing shows what a black box the art auction market is. Banksy’s real booby trap is a lot less dodgy than some of the more ethical booby traps that go along with anonymous sellers.

Sotheby’s responded: “As a matter of practice, we don’t comment on our clients.”

5. What Did Sotheby’s Make of the Instagram Video Showing Banksy Installing the Shredder?

The video, posted to the artist’s account after the sale, raises as many questions as it answers. When was the shredder installed? In 2006, when the work was made? Or at some point afterward (it actually only says “A few years ago”)? Documentation has always been part of his practice, but did Banksy really shoot a video of the installation more than a decade ago (pre-smartphone and definitely pre-Instagram), and hang on to it just in case?

Sotheby’s maintains it has no idea how this whole thing happened. “Like the entire art world, we were surprised,” the rep said.

6. Was It Market Manipulation?

If, as many people speculate, the most logical person to have sold the work was actually Banksy himself or some front for Banksy, and the stunt really affected the value of a work sold at public auction, one way or another, doesn’t that count as a kind of market manipulation?

For that matter, if the auction house knew about (or even suspected) the impending stunt, gave out an estimate, and let bidders believe it, knowing that some event was about to happen that would change its value—isn’t that misleading too?

7. Was the Buyer in on It?

It is truly lucky for Sotheby’s that this anonymous female buyer is so pleasant about this whole thing (and note, interestingly, that if it was an “anonymous male” buyer, people would still be guessing it was Banksy…), but we still have to wonder.

It would be interesting to know what backstage negotiations took place post- (or pre-) sale. The buyer says she was disappointed at first when Girl With Balloon shredded itself, but ultimately came around.

If Sotheby’s was in on the gag—which we hope it was, because otherwise it looks really bumbling—surely the auction house risked irritating all those many clients it described as having engaged in an “intense bidding battle… in the room and on the phones”?

“Like Sotheby’s, the purchaser had absolutely nothing to do with the prank,” the auction house spokesperson said. “Beyond that, we don’t comment on conversations with our clients.”

8. Now That We Are Looking at This More Closely, Did Sotheby’s Really Write This Incredibly Dismissive and Vaguely Prophetic Description of the Work?

Here’s the catalogue description for the work formerly known as Girl With Balloon. (Sotheby’s told artnet News the note was written by the contemporary team in London.)

“Bordered by an ornate gilded frame, an integral element of the artwork chosen by Banksy himself, the present work is a kitschy emblem of pathos. Instantly gettable, Banksy’s graffiti image is a perfect encapsulation of human emotion for the short-attention span of our social media age: it seditiously pokes fun at high-minded art world savoir faire and in doing so appeals to many, for whom it represents a contemporary expression of sanctity, a bright and vivid symbol of hope everlasting. Ultimately, however, Girl with Balloon is the poster-child of Banksy’s art: whether you are for or against him, this image utterly encapsulates the immediacy and controversy surrounding the artist’s mission.”

“Instantly gettable”?

Someone got got alright! We’re still figuring out who!


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