For an appraiser, situating a work of art within its historical context is an essential process in establishing value. Naturally, if and when this framework changes, the impact on the artwork’s value can be affected.
In a now infamous moment during Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale in London last week, a canvas painting by British street artist Banksy spontaneously self-destructed seconds after the hammer fell for $1.4 million, which is now the second highest auction result for the artist (the current record stands at $1.87 million set in 2008). In the days following the incident, the conversation has centered on the potential increase in the value of the work.
Before the now viral event, the artwork was already poised to be an important lot in the sale. The painting, which depicts a small girl rendered in black and white who reaches out towards a bright red, heart-shaped balloon is generally considered the most iconic image Banksy has ever produced. Originally created as a mural in 2002, the artist used a variant of the image in 2014 to highlight the Syrian refugee crisis and again in 2017 when another version was created in connection with the UK general election. That same year, a poll was published which ranked Girl With a Balloon the UK’s favorite artwork, further cementing its status as an iconic image. The painting offered at Sotheby’s was considered particularly unique in that unlike other versions offered at auction that were editioned iterations, this work was gifted to the consignor by the artist in 2006 following his infamous show Barely Legal in Los Angeles. Given its popularity and particular rarity, the $1.4 million selling price (3.5 times its high presale estimate) was not surprising.
Following its shocking self-destruction, the artwork’s historical context has been altered. As Elizabeth Dee astutely points out, the painting transformed from a “static canvas in a frame” to a performance piece, making a pointed statement on the value of contemporary art. Banksy himself has now “re-authenticated” the piece under a new title—Love is in the Bin, further signifying its radical metamorphosis and cementing its status as a wholly new artwork.
Which begs the question—does this transformation equal an increase in the work’s value?
The answer is likely yes. An auction price was established before the shredding and a higher post-destruction price is probably inevitable, which will establish a distinct, separate market value for the work’s new history and context.
Additionally, any value increase is perhaps heavily influenced by the subsequent publicity, which has been generated primarily from Sotheby’s marketing campaign. Since the sale, the auction house has capitalized on the media attention and placed the work on exhibition in London. They are now promoting it as the “first piece of performance art created during a live auction.” This is not unlike Christie’s aggressive and expansive marketing strategy last year for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which ended up setting the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold publicly, despite lingering doubts from scholars regarding its authenticity. As Elizabeth Dee suggests, auction houses’ powerful marketing strategies may now play a significant role in establishing the value of art, subverting more traditional barometers.
Written by Grace Harlow, specialist appraiser at Mearto.com