Two telephone bidders competed over the painting when it was auctioned as the last lot that evening. Once the painting was hammered down by the auctioneer, the canvas moved out of the frame and neatly shredded itself. According to the reports, the destruction of the painting was controlled by a remote control mechanism, followed by the mixed reactions of the public, who regarded the unusual occurrence as the part of the auction plan.
The next day, Banksy, through his official Instagram page uploaded the video describing his long-term plan of the painting-destruction: “A few years ago I secretly built a shredder into a painting in case it was ever put up for auction”.
The video also captures how the shredder was incorporated into the work’s thick frame and the reactions of the public gathered at the auction. In roughly one day, the video was seen more than six million times.
Once the news spread around, the art world split into opposing groups. Some of the attendees of the event, with the intention to indicate potential co-involvement from the Sotheby’s side, claimed, logically enough, that the frame of the work was too thick and too heavy for the canvas and therefore could have been the object of inquiry from the art gallery’s side.
Even though official Sotheby’s had not issued a statement, their website does indicate that the work was checked by Pest Control, prior to the auction. Pest Control is the ‘handling service acting on the behalf of the artist BANKSY’, as says their webpage. One may intentionally assume that the shredding device was installed during the authenticity-determination process of the work.
During the press conference following the auction, Alex Braczik – Senior Director at Sotheby’s – claimed: “We’ve been Banksy-ed”. Indeed, Banksy is well-known for his extraordinarily unexpected pranks. In 2005, he tricked four museums in New York (MoMA, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum and American Museum of Natural History) by adding modern details to the precious pieces displayed in the galleries.
In September 2006, Banksy left an inflatable doll dressed in the orange uniform of the Guantanamo Bay within the rollercoaster in New Orleans Disneyland Park. In 2004, Banksy managed to hang his own ‘smile-faced’ version of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, Paris.
The person behind the artistic pseudonym ‘Banksy’ is still unknown. The version closest to reality, but yet disproved, came from a criminologist at Queen Mary University in London, who identified Banksy as Robin Gunningham from Bristol, the city where Banksy started his artistic career. With his identity unknown, Banksy manages to influence a whole generation of the street artists and hit high values at Sotheby’s.
Banksy is known for his severely negative attitude towards art galleries and auctions. In 2007, he completed the piece Morons, screen-print in colours, depicting the auction with the phrase on the auctioned canvas stating: ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit’. Funny enough, the frame of the work in Morons, looks almost identical as the heavy frame of Girl with Balloons.
Girl with Balloons, is arguably one of the most famous works of Banksy. It was originally created as a stencil on Green East Street, in London, but later reproduced several times. Apart from the canvas version of the painting, the artist created a UK Election Souvenir Special! variation of the work, depicting girl with the UK-flag covered balloon and gifted to registered voters in Bristol constituencies, who would vote against Conservative Party during the 2017 elections. In three days, the print was recalled by the Electoral Commission.
What was the Sotheby’s prank – a rebellion against the auction houses? Artistic war against capitalism? A clever marketing campaign? Disregarding the reason of the prank, probably the most well-known street artist Banksy will be forever inscribed in the history of art. Not a bad result for a street-art rebel, ‘bombing’ cities with his unique stencils and graffiti.