Banksy – from urban vandal to urban hero



Last December saw the release of a cinema documentary about Banksy. However, viewers of Exit Through the gift shop (translated into French as Faites le mur) are unlikely to learn much about the mysterious artist whose face is filmed in the shade and whose voice is deformed by a vocoder. BANKSY remains, in fact, a most famous “anonymous” person. In any case, now that the media have been so cleverly intrigued, we will no doubt see a positive impact on his auction prices.

How did Banksy become an icon?
Nothing – or a least very little – about the man comes through in his autobiography. The artist was apparently born in Bristol in England in 1974. That is about as much as we know. His tags, stencils and aphorisms provide a more pertinent portrait of this anonymous star who in 10 years has daubed walls with poetic infringements, subversive messages and corrosive humour in Bristol, London, Barcelona, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Dakar, Mumbay and other places. Remember… street art is illegal and therefore Banksy’s appropriation of urban road signs and markings into cheeky frescos is tantamount to vandalism. But Banksy’s natural mischievousness makes him an excellent social agitator. When he attacks the ills, violence, excesses and absurdities of our era, he does it with enough style and/or humour to make his message easily digestible. Subversion, humour and outdoor art were thus the initial factors that drew Banksy out of anonymity. In 2005, another series of initiatives consolidated his notoriety: his entry into museums… illegally, of course!

The artist managed to “hang” a number of his works in some of the world’s most closely guarded museums. By diverting the attention of the guards, Banksy managed to hang strange works – a Madonna with gas mask, a Millet gleaner who has stepped out of the frame to smoke a cigarette, or a previously announced “ancient” rock engraving proving the existence of a pre-historic man with a supermarket caddy – in the exhibition rooms of the Tate Britain, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Alongside the substantial media attention generated by these actions, Bonhams and Sotheby’s first introduced the artist to their sales in 2005 (only one print had until then been sold at auction).

Prices rise tenfold in just one year
The four works submitted for auction in 2005 all sold and his Mother and Child painting doubled its estimated price range when it fetched £6,000 (nearly €9,000) at Sotheby’s on 25 October 2005. In 2006, after a number of American film stars such as Christina Aguilera, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt started collecting his works, Banksy’s price index rocketed: in June of that year, his Think Tank fetched £18,000 (€26,300) against an estimate of £3,000 – £5,000. On 18 October his Mona Lisa fetched £48,000 (€71,400) at Sotheby’s and then the following week his Tank, embracing Couple sold for £52,000 (€77,600).
The inflation continued in 2007: £85,000 (nearly €130,000) in February Bombing Middle England at Sotheby’s; £240,000 (€353,000) in April for Space Girl and Bird at Bonhams; £270,000 (€388,000) in October for The Rude Lord at Sotheby’s… and the prices of his prints followed suit: one copy of a limited edition of 20 prints of Kate Moss‘s face (in Andy WARHOL’s Marylyn Monroe style) fetched roughly between €40,000 and €100,000 on average! The only works affordable at less than €1,000 were small prints from runs of 500 or 1,000 editions.

Indeed, the euphoria surrounding the artist was so intense that Sotheby’s felt they were taking no risk by including one of his works in one of their New York sales. Thus in February 2008 Keep it spotless – a stencil on canvas making an overt reference to the other star of the British art world – Damien HIRST – generated Banksy’s first 7-figure dollar result ($1.7m or €1.16m). In reality, the strength of that result had much to do with the context as it was sold during Sotheby’s Red (Auction), a charity sale organised by artist Damien Hirst, the art dealer Larry Gagosian and the rock singer Bono.

That was Banksy’s first and, so far, only million-plus auction result. Not long after that, the euphoria subsided and the auction houses substantially lowered their profiles (offering only a third of the number of Banksy works in 2009 vs. 2008) while price estimates on his works were substantially revised (divided by 2 or 3). For example, his painting with the premonitory Sale Ends Today (Fin de vente aujourd’hui) that was bought-in against a pre-sale estimate of $600,000 – $800,000 in May 2008, fetched just $190,000 (€140,000) a year later, i.e. less than a third of the work’s previous low estimate (Sotheby’s NY).

The crisis may have seriously diminished his prices, but it has not impacted the artist’s popularity with the general public. During the summer of 2009, his exhibition at the Bristol Museum was mounted like a commando operation (set up during two nights and kept secret until the opening) and it attracted 320,000 visitors in less than three months.

So if, perchance, you find your wall has been daubed by Banksy: do not wash it off… it could well interest some of the world’s major museums. And should you feel inclined to launch legal proceedings against him for vandalism… forget it…you’ll lose… because in theory his “graffiti” adds value to your property…