On Friday night, a painting by the anonymous street artist known as Banksy sold at Sotheby’s auction house in London for $1.4 million. But as soon as the auctioneer dropped the gavel, something unexpected happened: a beeping alarm went off and the frame began eating the painting, spitting half of it out the bottom in what may be the first instance of a self-destructing painting, reports Scott Reyburn at The New York Times.
The piece was a classic Banksy motif known as “Girl with Balloon,” created using spray paint on canvas back in 2006. In a video posted after the incident, Banksy shows how he built a custom shredding device into the large gilt frame in case the work was ever sold at auction. He also posted an Instagram quoting Picasso, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”
The painting’s sale coincides with Frieze Week, one of London’s most significant art fairs. The staff of Sotheby’s denies any prior knowledge of the shredding.
“We’ve been Banksy-ed,” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of European Contemporary art said in a press conference after the incident. “I’ll be quite honest, we have not experienced this situation in the past, where a painting is spontaneously shredded upon achieving a record for the artist.”
However, Reyburn reports that there is some evidence the auction house was in on the gag, despite their denials. First, a man operating an electronic device inside a bag was spotted in the auction house, presumably someone turning on the remote control shredder, as seen in a post from the chairman of Sotheby’s Switzerland, Caroline Lang’s private Instagram account, Reyburn reports. He was later said to have been removed by security. Doubters point out that Sotheby’s does not allow people to carry bags into their auctions.
“If it had been offered earlier in the sale, it would have caused disruption and sellers would have complained about that,” says Morgan Long, head of the art investment company the Fine Art Group who witnessed the shredding from the front row. “And Sotheby’s let a man with a bag into the building. They must have known.”
The painting—just a piece of canvas on a wooden backing—would have also been much wider and heavier than normal, raising suspicion, especially during any condition report, or routine examination of a high-dollar artwork.
The most suspicious element is the placement of the painting and timing of the sale. The piece was hung on the wall instead of being placed on a podium like other paintings up for sale. And it was the last piece in the auction, meaning the shredding would not disrupt the rest of the sale.
It’s not known what the anonymous buyer of the shredded artwork thinks about the piece or whether Sotheby’s will discount or cancel the sale. Sebastian Smee at The Washington Post reports that there is some talk that the shredding incident will actually increase the value of the artwork.
He also points out the mixed message of the shredding. The self-destructing “Girl with Balloon” is believed to be a comment on capitalism and the art market. However, if Banksy wanted to make a real statement, Smee points out, he would have totally destroyed the art. Instead, what remains could conceivably be put back together or kept in its shredded state to later be displayed or even sold again, raising the idea that the work was less of a social commentary and more of a self-promoting publicity stunt.
That’s in contrast to truly destructive artists, like Michael Landy. In 2001, he created an installation called Break Down. Over two weeks, he placed all 7,227 of his worldly belongings, including his passport, birth certificate and the pieces of his Saab car, on a conveyor belt and ran them through an industrial shredder, finishing the project with nothing but the clothes on his back.