The British street artist Banksy 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 last 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. It attracted bidding from several dealers, including Nicolai Frahm, before racing to a record £574,000 ($753,000).
Another German artist to attract competition was painter Daniel RichterDaniel 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’sJenny Saville’s massive exercise in painting flesh called “Propped”, a naked self-portrait made when she was graduating 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 GagosianGagosian from whom Teiger bought this painting. At the Sotheby’s auction, it surpassed her previous record of £6.8 million, 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. Jenny Saville officially became the most expensive living female artist.
“We Were Banksy’d”
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The second section of the evening saw a healthy 57 out of 65 works sell for £33.86 million ($44.4 million). The sale ended on a note of hilarity when first, a large yellow painting by street artist KAWSKAWS, 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 BanksyBanksy, 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.
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. Meanwhile, a man in a flat cap looking not unlike Banksy’s alter ego Robin Gunninghamalter 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!
With His Viral Shredding Performance, Did Banksy Just Change the Market for Performance Art Forever?
The surprising event marks one of the most relevant and timely exchanges we’ve seen between the market, the artist and the public. But you may not have considered the full significance of the act. It also arguably made the work the most expensive piece of performance art ever sold at auction.
In the process of shredding, the painting became a symbol of the increasing acceptance and integration of performance culture into the art market. And notably, it may also represent the first time performance—a medium that has proven difficult to commodify—has been associated with driving up market value.
To be sure, one could argue that this was not a performance at all—that instead, it is simply an artwork sold as a static canvas in a frame, put forward for sale like any other to an unsuspecting market.
But let’s look at it another way. Presumably, at least some people were in on the plan: the New York TimesNew York Times reported that Sotheby’s employees were amused, rather than shocked, by its spontaneous destruction and, most pointedly, the work was positioned as the grand finale of the sale. It seems safe to assume, then, that some Sotheby’s staff, if not the buyer and the seller, were in on the game (although the auction house has denied this). Art is about intent, and Banksy noted on his Instagram account that he had always intended for this event to happen. He explained that he had embedded a shredder into the painting in case it was ever put up for auction. In other words, he always planned to activate it at a particular moment (an auction) with a defined audience (those attending the sale).
Like any work of performance art, Banksy’s required an audience in order for the work to be completed in real time. By combining two combustible factors—an action and the participation of the audience—the artist achieved his intention: to make a statement about value that could not have been articulated any other way.
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Elizabeth Dee | news.artnet.com
Colin Gleadell | news.artnet.com
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This article has been edited by The Art Dose.