This month, a unique Banksy print is set to hit the auction block for the very first time. We sat down with founder and CEO of Forum Auctions, Stephan Ludwig, to learn more about him, his business, and the piece in question.
On 21 January 2019, Forum Auctions is offering a hand sprayed variant of Banksy’s iconic Rude Copper image at their Editions and Works on Paper sale. Numbered 1 out of 250 editions, the print is further set apart because Banksy signed it and added his signature red tag, as well as the phrase “fuck the police” hand-sprayed across the finished work. The image is both blunt and humorous, turning the idea of a friendly and approachable policeman on its head. Rude Copper was Banksy’s first commercially produced screenprint, and helped introduce the subversive artist to the fine art market, where he has since become a huge success.
Forum Auctions has a well-established relationship with Banksy, selling over a quarter of all Banksy numbered editions that come to auction on the secondary market annually. In 2019 alone they were responsible for 30% of these sales in the UK and 22% of these works sold worldwide. Forum Auctions is London’s premier auction house for works on paper, and exclusively sells editioned works that artists intended for resale rather than ephemera or collectables. This concentration has allowed Forum Auctions to focus on specific, high-quality items and create specialised markets. One of their most popular categories has been their online Banksy Marketplace as well as their dedicated Banksy auctions, of which there have been four since 2016.
Under the direction of founder and CEO Stephan Ludwig, the Forum team pioneered the auction market for street art both online and in live auctions, promoting works by street artists since 2008. Beyond modern and contemporary works, the auction house also has a strong background in antiquarian books and manuscripts, 20th-century literature, and old master prints and drawings. Their expertise and specialisation have allowed them to thrive in the evermore competitive online auction market. To learn more about Stephan Ludwig, Forum Auctions, and the upcoming Banksy sale, Barnebys had a chat with the man himself.
Barnebys: What is your background and how did you become involved in the art world?
Stephan Ludwig: My earlier career was as an investment banker in debt capital markets and credit derivatives, and my introduction to the art world was unromantically financial. In 2000 I invested in a fledgling online auctions business, which was short-lived after becoming an early casualty of the dot.com crash. Undeterred, we raised fresh capital to develop a ‘bricks and clicks’ consolidator in the UK regional auction market, eventually acquiring Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions. Whilst this business was characteristically a more typical ‘general estates’ auctioneer, we were at the vanguard of adopting new technologies; for example, we were Barnebys’ first client outside Scandinavia, we held the-saleroom.com’s first ever auction on its present platform, and we were the first UK regional auctioneer to hold timed auctions and to launch our own ‘white label’ free-to-use live bidding application.
How did you come to found Forum Auctions?
The concept behind Forum was to combine 21st-century e-commerce-enabled auction technology with a focus on multiples markets. A number of previous colleagues were sufficiently convinced to join me and Forum Auctions held its first £1,000,000-sale on 12 July 2016, less than three months after the specialists had joined the firm. One of Forum’s key USPs is our speed to market – the quality of our staff, all of whom are shareholders in the company, is undoubtedly a critical ingredient of our business model.
How do you negotiate both online and in-person auctions? Has this changed since you started the company?
With the business less than four years old, it is disingenuous for me to distinguish between current and past practices. Our buyers are predominantly online; of the 10,000 lots we sold last year, less than 500 were hammered down to a paddle ‘in the room’. Market trends have been kind to us and we are assiduously focused on casting our consignment net deep and wide across the web. For example, our Banksy Marketplace is the third-most-visited page on our website, generating literally hundreds of leads from both buyers and sellers. There is however no substitute for a specialist’s personal touch and our more valuable consignments are ultimately handled in person, albeit often by detailed electronic communication rather than face-to-face. Both Rude Copper and the signed Girl with Balloon print that we sold in December for £166,600 (premium, ARR and tax inclusive) were remotely consigned from outside Europe.
Why did you decide to specialise in works on paper?
Forum’s philosophy of focusing on multiples markets, where the products are editioned and cost-effective to ship, leads us to specialising in 20th-century prints. The genre presents readily recognisable and iconic images that lend themselves well to introducing a new community of shoppers to ‘buying at source’ and taking advantage of the marked discounts to retail pricing. Whilst wary of entering high cost and overly competitive markets, we are always looking at new verticals and acquired bidforwine.co.uk, a P2P marketplace, last year.
What is Forum Auctions’ relationship with Banksy’s pieces?
As with all of our auction material, we act exclusively as agent on behalf of the seller. In handling only editioned prints we are always transacting in the secondary market and never with the artist directly. Our relationship with the pieces is limited to appraising, cataloguing, marketing and selling. We of course also offer both sellers and buyers advice on realising their collection management objectives and, working closely with a P2P lending platform, are able to facilitate pre-and post-auction loans secured on the works in question.
This is Rude Copper’s first time at auction. How do you think it will do?
This is a truly unique opportunity to acquire a piece of Banksy history. The work compellingly ticks all of the boxes, being an iconic Banksy image, numbered ‘1’ of the artist’s first ever commercially-produced screenprint, hand-sprayed, signed and tagged – what more could a collector wish for? We feel that the £70,000-90,000 pre-sale estimate is well pitched and are hopeful the work will achieve a healthy premium over this.
Do you think the message of Rude Copper is more or less relevant now than when it was created? Why?
I find it a great image on so many levels. Self-evidently, its overt messaging is no less subversive in 2020 than it was in 2002. Likewise, the tickle of humour that feeds into all of the artist’s work is timeless. The notion of being ‘given the bird’ by your ever-dependable neighbourhood bobby makes me chuckle every time.
What is your favourite Banksy piece and why?
To be honest this changes from time to time. One of the many strengths of Banksy’s work is that the ever-evolving zeitgeist regularly recycles the relevance of even his oldest pieces. I find Turf War, irreverently embellishing Churchill’s trademark scowl of defiance with an acid green mohawk, particularly beguiling in the present political climate.
What are your future plans for Forum Auctions?
At the risk of sounding somewhat unadventurous – ‘more of the same’. Of course we are always exploring ways of doing things differently, and 2020’s project pipeline sees us engaging Artbrain.co and their machine learning algorithm to restructure our digital marketing methodology. I have always been easily charmed by new ideas and have no doubt that our project list will grow as this fresh decade evolves.
As well as Rude Copper, seven additional numbered and signed Banksy prints, including Napalm, Love is in the Air, and Silver Flag will be on offer at Forum Auctions’ Editions and Works on Paper sale. Additionally, pieces by artists such as Albrect Dürer, Rembrandt, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol will be featured. The auction is being held at The Westbury Hotel in London on 21 January at 1pm, with bidding available both in-person and online.