“We’ve just been Banksy’ed,” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s European head of contemporary art, said on Friday. Just after fetching a record $1.4 million from an anonymous phone bidder during a Sotheby’s auction on Friday, Banksy’s famous 2006 work, Girl with Balloon, was put through a shredder. To be exact, the infamous – and similarly anonymous – street artist had hidden a shredding device within the work’s frame and as a soon as the London-based auctioneer’s gavel had hit, a sizable of the painting was scrapped and left hanging from the frame.
The stunt immediately garnered headlines across the globe, after shocking those in attendance, and according to a statement from Sotheby’s, “surprised” the successful buyer, who is currently in discussion with the renowned auction house “about next steps.”
What are the next steps? Well, chances are, the buyer – who remains unnamed – will likely be able to get out of the purchase, if he or she wants to.
For one thing, Sotheby’s terms of sale state that “all risk of loss” – the contract law term used to determine who maintains the burden of risk for damage occurring to goods after the sale has been completed, but before delivery has occurred – passes to the purchaser upon receipt of the goods. This means that Sotheby’s remains the legal holder of its auctioned items – and thus, the party liable for any damage – until such its auctioned-off items are placed in the physical custody of the buyer.
Moreover, there is almost certainly a marked difference in terms of the estimate assigned to the work, or the price put forth by Sotheby’s to “provide prospective buyers with an important preliminary guide to value and is generally the basis for establishing the reserve price.” Should the value of the work be significantly diminished immediately following the auction, Sotheby’s could be liable for that.
However, while the shredding (i.e., partial destruction) of the painting might lessen its value at first glance, art experts suspect that the exact opposite may actually be the case. For instance, Joey Syer, co-founder of MyArtBroker, a platform that connects art buyers and sellers, told The Evening Standard on Saturday, “Given the media attention this stunt has received, the lucky buyer would see a great return on the $1.4 million they paid last night. This is now part of Art History in its shredded state and we'd estimate Banksy has added at a minimum 50 percent to its value, possibly as high as being worth more than [$2.62 million].”
But maybe even more interesting than the potential effect that the shredding stunt will have on the price of the painting is that Sotheby’s was almost-certainly in on the stunt, and that the auction house’s participation is representative of a larger effort by some of the world’s most esteemed auctions houses to remain relevant in the market in 2018 and engage millennial consumers.
As Architectural Digest noted early this year, “Across the major auction houses, most have plans in place to cultivate a younger demographic.” This has seen auction houses, such as Christie’s, hosting cocktail hours on weekends to order to draw in a younger, hipper crowd, and others, including Freeman’s in Philadelphia, hosting auctions with pieces at more accessible entry prices.
Beyond Banksy, Sotheby’s introduced its seasonal Contemporary Curated sale, which is designed “for new collectors and established clients to acquire accessibly priced works by leading artists of the post-war and contemporary periods.” The auction house has also made significant efforts to ensure that its auctions are accessible online, and even via social media, in order to engage new – read: younger – consumers.
“We are really focusing on Weibo and WeChat right now, particularly growing our Chinese audience,” Sotheby’s director of digital marketing and strategy, Noah Wunsch, said. And thanks to its growing presence on multiple platforms, Sotheby’s is seeing significant uptick in new buyer engagement, while remaining cognizant of the legacy of the Sotheby’s name and the risk of “alienating its older, engaged clients.”
All the while, at least some houses have looked to inherently “cooler” offerings. French auction house Arterial, for example, staged an auction in May entitled, C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me), after rap group Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 single. The auction’s 145 lots consisted almost exclusively of limited-edition and hard-to-get goods from New York-based cult streetwear brand, Supreme. The price estimates ranging from €200 to €100,000 and the action, as a whole, which was held at Paris headquarters and simultaneously online, brought in upwards of $1 million.
There was more to it than that, though. Fabien Naudan, the vice president of Artcurial, who had spent three years gathering the 135 sale items, said “the evening was about more than money.” Arterial’s event attracted no shortage of individuals who were almost certainly unaccustomed to tuning into auctions. As the New York Times’ Elizabeth Paton wrote, “At first glance, this was a high-end, high-profile auction just like any other: held in the sale room of a gilded mansion near Avenue Montaigne.”
However, she noted that there were are few at-odds elements: “For one, the bidders were mostly young and urban, wearing baseball caps, hoodies and sneakers. A Chinese couple sat hand in hand on the second row, catalogs on their laps — she in a Gucci T-shirt, he in a Louis Vuitton denim jacket. Behind them was a serious looking man with diamond earrings, immaculately trimmed facial hair, wearing a Supreme x Undercover jacket. Behind him, gaggles of teenagers in rhinestones, plenty of whom still had braces on their teeth.” Not your usual action-going folks, and that is precisely the point.
“The C.R.E.A.M auction is a major milestone for us,” Mr. Naudan told the Times, “not just in terms of the type of clients we have attracted with it, but also in terms of what it says about changing perceptions of valuable art and design in the current market.”