Banksy, not so long ago an anonymous art-world prankster and cultural provocateur, once more enters a new year as one of the world's most ubiquitous, revered and debated artists and most sought-after, as evidenced by the record prices realized at Heritage Auctions
for his works in the last 12 months. There remains a deep and profound global appetite for the man who shattered the barricades between the highbrow and lowbrow, who's adored as much by the establishment as the hellraisers, and who helped forever blur the lines between irony, satire and sincerity.
For this reason, Heritage Auctions is launching its "In Focus" series devoted to a single artist with Banksy as the inaugural subject. Bidding is scheduled to open Jan. 20 for this special online event, titled In Focus: Banksy, with the live auction set for Feb. 10.
"The In Focus events are smaller curated sales that specifically present the best works available in the market by one artist," says Leon Benrimon, Heritage Auctions' Vice President of Modern & Contemporary Art. "We recently doubled and tripled record prices for Banksy works in our Urban Art sales, and as a result, we created the In Focus series at Heritage specifically to highlight artists like Banksy and satisfy the demand in the marketplace. We are incredibly pleased with the outstanding selection of prints in this auction, and we look forward to setting even more record prices for Banksy to begin the new year."
It's only appropriate that a singular sale of Banksy's works features 2007's screenprint Morons (Sepia), his punk-rock potshot at the auction houses, museums, galleries and collectors who have so tightly embraced him these last 15 years.
This infamous piece, signed and dated and numbered 141/300, is Banksy's makeover of a photo documenting the earth-shattering $39-million sale in 1989 of Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers. Except, the van Gogh painting has been replaced by the words by which Banksy's piece is better known among his acolytes: "I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU MORONS ACTUALLY BUY THIS SHIT."
Morons was originally made available during Banksy's three-day Los Angeles exhibition Barely Legal in 2006, billed at the time as a "vandalised warehouse extravaganza" but really a show devoted to the "overall theme of global poverty and injustice," as the BBC reported then. At the time, the highly publicized, star-studded event where prints were sold for $500 "seem[ed] to go against Banksy's rebel image," The New York Times noted.
Two more prints in Heritage's In Focus event were also made available during Barely Legal: Grannies and Applause.
Grannies, the color of pale pink, is playful, among Banksy's best-told jokes: Two elderly women, grinning and seemingly contented, knit sweaters bearing the slogans "PUNKS NOT DEAD" and THUG FOR LIFE." The screenprint offered here is numbered 121/500.
Applause, numbered 227/500, tells a far darker joke. This is Banksy's appropriation of the photo in which President George W. Bush landed on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln for his "Mission Accomplished" speech on May 1, 2003. In the artist's iteration, a member of the flight crew holds up a sign reading "APPLAUSE" as though to an audience a knowing nod toward politics as reality TV.
The highly sought-after Stop and Search, another signed work from 2007, is a centerpiece in this sale, perhaps because its subject matter, too, never seems to age.
On this screenprint numbered 119/500, The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy, accompanied by her dog Toto, is interrogated by a suspicious police officer clad in riot gear; with blue gloves the officer searches Dorothy's wicker basket in which she carries the dog. That same year on a concrete wall in the West Bank, Banksy painted its ostensible companion piece, Girl and a Soldier, depicting Dorothy's doppelgänger frisking a guard each piece ostensibly intended to show how fragile the innocence of children.
Golf Sale from 2003 is one of Banksy's earliest appropriations of an iconic image to make a political statement in this case the forever-famous photo from the June 1989 student-led pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Several pictures were taken of the still-unidentified "Tank Man" as he "walked into the street and raised his right hand no higher than a New Yorker hailing a taxi," as The New York Times wrote on June 6, 1989. Banksy, anti-war and outspoken against government oppression, put in that man's hand a sign reading "Golf Sale," with an arrow pointing to his right.
Golf Sale first appeared on a wall in Banksy's hometown of Bristol, England. But in 2003 he made available 750 prints 150 signed, the rest unsigned. The one in January's sale is among the unsigned, but, like all of the prints in this online event, it is accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity issued by Pest Control.
Banksy turned his attention toward yet another landmark moment and iconic photograph in his 2006 work Flag, available in this sale in the Silver iteration of which there were 1,000 unsigned screenprints made for 2006's Santa's Ghetto exhibition at the artist's London gallery and arcade on Oxford Street. Heritage is offering the one numbered 16/1,000.
This is his rendering of Joe Rosenthal's Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima photograph, taken on Feb. 23, 1945, as six U.S. Marines raised the United States' flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the waning days of World War II. Except here Banksy saw not victory, but despair if not outright defeat. Four children climb to the top of a burned-out husk of an old car; two more stand on the roof to hold the flag while a giant sun sets behind them on America, perhaps, or at least the American Dream.
Heritage's In Focus: Banksy event also features one of the artist's earliest-known works: Barcode, in which a leopard appears to have escaped from his cage, though here that cage is made of a barcode. (For a while, the barcode was a recurring motif of Banksy's, appearing in Barcode Shark from 2002, on his few album covers and, in 2013, on a Long Island wall spray-painted by a robot.)
This piece, made with stencil, first appeared some two decades ago on a house in Bristol and disappeared a decade ago, after that home was remodeled. It survives now because in 2004, Banksy made Barcode available in screenprint in a quantity limited to 750, with only 150 of them signed. This one is numbered 239 of the 600 unsigned.
And no Banksy sale would be complete without his Di-Faced Tenner, among the thousands of photocopied works produced in 2004. It's called that because Princess Diana's face has replaced the Queen's. The note says, too, that it was issued by the "Banksy of England." And it reads: "I promise to pay the bearer on demand the ultimate price."
Banksy made about a million quid's worth of notes, which he intended to pass out at Reading Festival and other outdoor events. But as he notes in the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, after he'd handed out a few, he watched people try to spend them at the bar which meant, essentially, the artist had just forged a million quid.
"And obviously," he says, "for that you'd go to jail for 10 years."
Or become of the most famous artists of the 20th century.