It was the stunt that launched equally as many think pieces as eye rolls. Just moments after the gavel came down at a Sotheby’s auction on October 5 signalling the sale of Banksy’s Girl With Balloon for £1,042,000 (roughly $1.4 million—a very unsurprising figure given the artist’s auction history), something happened to momentarily shock the gathered viewers and art world at large. Triggered by a remote control, the work partially shredded through the bottom of the frame.
But even by the time the piece had finished self-destructing (that is to say, half finished—due to a glitch it got stuck and didn’t shred entirely as it was meant to), the astonishment had begun to wear off. This was Banksy, after all. Playing pranks is his M.O. The new owner was apparently just as happy with the work and still prepared to buy it; the famously anonymous artist known for thumbing his nose at the art world had got us again; and art collectors could finally claim that auctions really are filled with high stakes and gasp-inducing sales.
But now, the stunt that just keeps on giving is generating more headlines. According to the Daily Mail, Banksy could technically be charged with a crime for destroying the artwork after it had been sold. The artist, at that point, no longer owned the piece as Salomé Verrell, a solicitor and a senior lecturer at the UK’s University of Law, explains.
“I liked the artistic value of what he did in shredding the painting but it is interesting that Banksy tends to use someone else’s property to make his artistic statements,” Verrell said. “I don’t think most people who aren’t called Banksy would get away with such behaviour.” And as the publication points out, if the artist were to be charged, authorities would have to find him first.
That this legal issue is only coming up now is probably due to the fact that the artwork wasn’t completely destroyed, as was intended. In fact, it got a new name, Love Is in the Bin. With the artist so notoriously guarded about his identity, having to keep meticulous plans to ensure his anonymity despite the rabid efforts to unmask him, we wonder if this was actually Banksy’s attempt to lead to his own outing. Had the work fully shredded, charges would have been much more likely. And it also seems unlikely that the artist hadn’t thought that far ahead.
As it stands, the buyer made out like a bandit, buying a fairly famous work that immediately made headlines and no doubt became much more valuable. But if things had gone differently, would authorities really be on the case? Anonymous figures rarely stay a guarded secret for long, and Banksy’s had an astoundingly good run. If he were to be revealed, one would think the artist might want to have a hand in his own undoing.