The anonymous street artist Banksy is known for subverting art world norms. Previously, he’s secretly sold his “spray art” in New York’s Central Park for a mere $60, and he created an entire Dismaland Bemusement Park for some of the world’s top artists. His latest stunt, however, is by far his most impressive one yet. On Friday, October 5, his 2006 spray-painted canvas titled Girl With a Balloon appeared at a Sotheby’s auction in London. But immediately upon being sold for £1,042,000 ($1,367,471), the unexpected happened: an alarm from within the frame rang and the painting began to self-destruct!
Once the auction hammer fell on the Banksy piece, the piece is seen moving through its massive gold frame (which doubled as a shredder) and being cut into strips. “[It] sold for over a million dollars and as we sat there…the painting started moving,” attendee Robert Casterline of Casterline Goodman gallery recalled. “[It was] all out confusion then complete excitement.”
According to the auction house, they had no idea that this would happen. Alex Branczik, the head of contemporary art for Europe, seemed just as surprised as the next person. “It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” he said. “He [Banksy] is arguably the greatest British street artist, and tonight we saw a little piece of Banksy genius.” He and others speculate “that the elusive artist had himself pressed the button that destroyed the work.”
There are people, however, that believe Sotheby’s must have known of the stunt. The frame was thick (and probably heavy) because of the built-in shredding device. Additionally, condition reports are often requested of high-priced artwork by potential buyers, and it seems unlikely that this detail would’ve gone unnoticed. And there are two more compelling pieces of evidence of prior knowledge: one is that the piece was hung on the wall (as opposed to a podium, which would be typical); and finally, it was the last auction of the night. “If it had been offered earlier in the sale, it would have caused disruption and sellers would have complained about that,” Morgan Long, the head of art investment at the Fine Art Group, told The New York Times.
So, was Girl With a Balloon destroyed? Or was it transformed into something entirely new, now a product of a performance piece? This is up for debate. “You could argue that the work is now more valuable,” Branczik mused. “It’s certainly the first piece to be spontaneously shredded as an auction ends.”
One way to assess whether it’s more or less valuable is to look to the person who bought it. “We have talked with the successful purchaser who was surprised by the story,” Sotheby’s said in a released statement. “We are in discussion about next steps.” The jury is out, but one thing is clear: the mystery of Banksy has only grown.