Contested Banksy art bombs in U.K. auction – is Britain’s stealth artist taking charge?

Flying Copper, by Banksy (b.1975?), silkscreen printed in colors, 2004, numbered 284/600 in pencil, published by Pictures on Walls, London, on woven paper. Photo courtesy Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com.

Flying Copper, by Banksy (b.1975?), silkscreen printed in colors, 2004, numbered 284/600 in pencil, published by Pictures on Walls, London, on woven paper. Photo courtesy Bloomsbury Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com.

LONDON (AP and ACNI) – A British auction house says it has failed to find buyers for five contested pieces of street art purportedly created by aerosol impresario Banksy.

The auction at Lyon & Turnbull follows a statement posted to Pest Control, a Web site affiliated with the British artist, warning that some street pieces were being falsely attributed to the artist, whose identity has never been confirmed.

Pest Control says it refuses to authenticate street art because Banksy prefers the work to remain in place. Ben Hanly, Lyon & Turnbull’s contemporary art expert, said Monday that the pieces were genuine and that the sale fell through for economic reasons.

In the last five years, the U.K. street artist known only as ‘Banksy’ has been transformed from a sometime-fugitive into a darling of the international art scene. Born around 1975, the graffiti-stenciller has put a new face on the British tradition of attacking the establishment with a pointed visual punchline.

His work ranges from pranks and satire aimed at the art market itself to rude jabs at the English nobility and forceful antiwar statements. Images that were once only admired by other guerilla artists from the sidewalk are now snapped up by celebrities and collectors who want a little bit of that attitude for the wall back home.

Banksy adopted the use of stencils early in his career, a technique much faster than spraypainting, which allowed the artist to retreat before the police arrived on the scene. Many of his early images on building and walls quickly received the usual public boot reserved for graffiti. The artist was careful to make a photo record of these street works, which can be seen on his Web site and in books.

Some of Banksy’s creations shocked middle-class sensibilities – two policemen kissing, or Queen Victoria as a lesbian – while other were strongly political and pointedly against the perceived American war machine. A good example would be a stenciled attack helicopter topped by a saccharine pink bow with the legend “Have a Nice Day.” 

The accelerating prices for Banksy’s work have led some communities to preserve his graffiti rather than removing them. Just keep in mind – for this type of public art, the artist chooses the site. His talents are not for hire.

Recent sales of Postwar and Contemporary art at the major auction houses have firmly underlined the strength of Banksy’s popularity in the art market. On May 13th at their newly-opened Madison Avenue galleries in New York, Bonham’s sold a multiple stencil of a monkey wearing a sandwich board that reads “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge.”

This 1998 acrylic on board work brought $252,000, but the artist has also stenciled the same image on walls and underground cars in London. Those versions came and went – he reported that the monkeys on the District Line cars lasting only about 20 minutes.

Bonham’s released this statement after the sale, “A very rare and important Banksy spraypaint and stencil on board happily surpassed expectation. Recently catapulted to fame for his politically charged, often ironic work, Banksy is becoming one of the most sought after young artists of his generation.”

“Two other Banksy silkscreens on paper each also sold above estimate: a 2005 work Jack and Jill (skipping up the hill wearing ‘Police’ bullet-proof vests) sold for $9,000, while Trolley Hunters, 2007 (depicting primitive male figures hunting empty grocery store carts) brought $5,700.”

Banksy has stated on his website: “I don’t agree with auction houses selling street art – its undemocratic, it glorifies greed and I never see any of the money.” Yet he makes highly desirable one-off works on board and more affordable limited edition prints which are very easily acquired through the art market.

Bloomsbury Auctions in London in conjunction with LiveAuctioneers offered a number of iconic Banksy images in the form of numbered prints this March. The Rude Copper with finger raised brought $7,252, one of the artist’s favorite rat images holding the sign Welcome to Hell> $8,461, the Grin Reaper on a clock $9,670, and a happy-faced, heavily-armed Flying Copper$12,087.

At the other end of the market spectrum, Sotheby’s set a record for Banksy’s work on February 14, 2008 at the “Red” auction in New York when Keep it Spotless, a defaced version of a Damien Hirst work, sold for $1,870,000, far beyond its $250,000-$350,000 estimate. A vandalized British red telephone box with a pickaxe in one side brought $605,000 at the same sale. This work had been placed in London’s Soho Square in 2005 and was later recovered from Westminster Environmental Services.

In an interview with Style Century Magazine, Alex Rotter, head of Sotheby’s Contemporary art division in New York, admitted that the Banksy-altered phone box was a personal favorite: “I definitely like his work – it’s cool, it’s edgy, it’s different.”

Rotter continued, “He’s still at an early point in his career, so it’s too early to say where he’s going. It takes at least a generation to see how an artist develops.”

In Sotheby’s May New York sale, a bronze Banksy rat sold for $169,000 with the catalogue offering this 2001 quote from the artist: “Win the rat race and you’re still a rat.”

Banksy must be amused by the concept of his art entering museums because he has played so many jokes on traditional art and the institutions that exhibit them. Check out some of the best in his book, Banksy: Wall and Piece(2005), where he has photos of the “installations” before authorities caught on and took them down.

An aristocratic gentleman holding a spray can in front of a graffiti wall remained up for more than a week at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. One of the best is an authentic-looking stone tablet with prehistoric pictographs of a man pushing a grocery cart as he hunts for game. The marker pen on rock piece lasted 8 days in the British Museum and was later added to the permanent collection.

Whatever screens he erects to keep his identity private, money is filtering through to Banksy. At least, enough money to buy stencils and paint and the plane tickets he needs to travel. He has turned down many offers to produce images for pay and seems to prefer the freedom that his lifestyle offers.

Collectors may own his images but they will never own him – or be him. Most people simply do not have the intestinal fortitude to work quick and dirty on the street, to create during the night the spectacle that rivets attention in the morning. There would be no Banksy in museums and auction galleries without the graffiti and visual pranks central to his persona.

 

Copyright 2008 Associated Press, with copyrighted contributions from Style Century Magazine, 2008, www.stylecenturymagazine.com; and Auction Central News International. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

 

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