Banksy Does It Again

Banksy broke records once again when his ‘Brexit painting’ sold for nearly £10 million at auction after an intense bidding war.

Banksy's Devolved Parliament (est. GBP1.5-2m) was displayed to the press during the preview for Sotheby’s Frieze Week Contemporary Art Auctions at Sotheby's. Banksy's Devolved Parliament was offered in Sotheby’s Frieze Week Contemporary Art Evening Auction alongside works by Basquiat, Fontana, Borgeois, Hackney, Bacon and more. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's
Banksy's Devolved Parliament (est. GBP1.5-2m) was displayed to the press during the preview for Sotheby’s Frieze Week Contemporary Art Auctions at Sotheby's. Banksy's Devolved Parliament was offered in Sotheby’s Frieze Week Contemporary Art Evening Auction alongside works by Basquiat, Fontana, Borgeois, Hackney, Bacon and more. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

After thirteen minutes of intense bidding between ten potential buyers, one art collector walked out with street artist Banksy’s largest known work for £9.9 million.

At auction last year, 2018, Banksy had the whole art world lose its collective breath when his work Girl with Red Balloon began to self-destruct via a built-in shredder seconds after it was sold for over £1 million at Sotheby’s. 

After Sotheby’s confirmed that the buyer still wanted the half-shredded piece, the auction house experts could relax and reflect on the scheme that quickly went viral. It turned out to be great marketing, and today the painting has been renamed Love is in the Bin. 

Who knows, maybe this renewed popularity is exactly what got the seller of Devolved Parliament to decide to sell now. Regardless, the timing and location of the auction were well-chosen by Sotheby’s.

This week, between the Frieze Fair, the PAD design fair, many contemporary auctions at major auction houses, gallery openings and museum exhibitions, it seems like almost the entire art world has congregated in London.

Banksy, ‘Devolved Parliament’, 2009, oil on canvas. Photo: Ⓒ Sotheby’s
Banksy, ‘Devolved Parliament’, 2009, oil on canvas. Photo: Ⓒ Sotheby’s

On 2 October, auction house Phillips set several sales records for artists such as Alex Katz, Simone Leigh, Derek Fordjour, Sanya Kantarovsky and Raoul de Keyser. On 3 October, however, it was Sotheby’s turn.

Expectations were high before Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction, and Banksy’s satirical Devolved Parliament was one of the most anticipated pieces. A monumental painting, it depicts the British House of Parliament being taken over and led by a bunch of chimpanzees. 

See also: 10 Famous Sculptures in Art History

The work was predicted to break price records for the artist, who has been written off in the past because of his background as a street artist. Still, many people got a surprise when the final amount was announced – Sotheby’s estimated the sale between £1.5-2 million, and the ending price was more than four times that, at £9,879,500.

The painting, which is nearly four and a half meters in length, is considered to be the largest oil on canvas by the street artist, who often uses house or building walls as the basis for his political messages and humorous social satire.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Pyro’, 1984, oil on canvas. Photo Ⓒ Sotheby’s
Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Pyro’, 1984, oil on canvas. Photo Ⓒ Sotheby’s

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work Pyro sold for the same amount as Devolved Parliament, and, although it was not a record price for the artist, it was still a significant sale. The work had last been sold by Sotheby’s in 1996, but at the time only fetched £221,000.

Basquiat’s Natives Carrying Things also sold, for £3,255,000 – nearly one hundred times more than it was sold at auction in 1995, when it made US$43,125 (£3,500).

Devolved Parliament (originally titled Question Time) was first shown ten years ago at the Banksy exhibition at Bristol City Museum. The exhibit received over 300,000 visitors, which not only made Banky a household name but the show one of the ten most-viewed art exhibitions in the world.

See also: Street Art: For the People

After the creation and first showing of the painting, Banksy temporarily took it back to repaint portions of it, which is also when he changed the title. And who knows… after this auction, maybe the work will be called Boris and His Bananas.

Banksy (defaced Hirst), ‘Keep it Spotless’, 2007, household gloss and spray paint on canvas. Photo Ⓒ Sotheby’s
Banksy (defaced Hirst), ‘Keep it Spotless’, 2007, household gloss and spray paint on canvas. Photo Ⓒ Sotheby’s

The previous auction record for Banksy was set with the work Keep it Spotless, which sold for US$1,870,000 (£938,740) in New York in 2008. However, the piece was created in conjunction with the English artist Damien Hirst, who is one of the world’s most talked-about contemporary artists and whose career was peaking in 2008. Although the figure in the painting was done by Banksy, the background comprises Hirst’s iconic dots, which caused some people to attribute the work’s success more to Hirst than to Banksy. 

Today, many English municipal politicians may be regretting their zero tolerance of ‘scribbles’. The sale of washed-off works by Banksy, other street artists and graffiti painters probably could have financed anything from new schools to annual salaries for a bunch of NHS staff.

See also: The 8 Top Selling Women in the YBA

Banksy, ‘Girl with Balloon’, 2006, spray paint and acrylic on canvas, mounted on board, in artist's frame. Photo Ⓒ Sotheby’s
Banksy, ‘Girl with Balloon’, 2006, spray paint and acrylic on canvas, mounted on board, in artist's frame. Photo Ⓒ Sotheby’s

As Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art, Sotheby's Europe put it:

"From Brooklyn to Bristol, Basquiat to Banksy, tonight saw artists who made their names on the streets set records on New Bond Street."

Because Banksy is such a notoriously secretive and private figure, it’s unlikely that he’ll make a public comment about the Sotheby’s auction or on his sales record.

This same secrecy is what makes Banksy such a captivating artist – when you least expect it, he comes as a phantom from the shadows to graffiti artworks for passersby. The only question is where and just how he’ll surprise the art world next time. 

This unknown man from Bristol’s back streets is paradoxically one of the world’s best-known artists, joining the ranks of names like Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci.

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