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Art Market

How Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” Became an Icon of 21st-Century Art

Justin Kamp
Aug 23, 2022 9:01PM

Photo by Dominic Robinson. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Twenty years ago, on a whitewashed storefront wall in Shoreditch, London, the anonymous street artist Banksy stenciled out a spare, innocent image: a young girl, windswept and monochrome, reaching for a bright red, heart-shaped balloon.

At the time, Banksy was still far from a household name. He was a niche artist, beloved among the taggers of the Bristol underground and increasingly notorious for the cheeky large-scale murals he produced across Bristol and London. Two decades on, he is a (still anonymous) global superstar, and that simple Shoreditch stencil has become one of the most indelible images of the 21st century.

Girl with Balloon’s ascent to icon status began slowly. After the initial Shoreditch stencil and another version in London’s Southbank, which appeared later in 2002, the work remained little more than a local street art fixture, attractive to passersby but unknown among the wider cultural milieu.

Banksy
Girl With Balloon (Signed), 2004
Mustard Contemporary
Banksy
Girl with Balloon GOLD AP, 2004
Andipa
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It wasn’t until two years after Girl with Balloon’s initial appearance, in 2004, that Banksy embraced the image’s potential for widespread reproduction: He partnered with photographer and curator Steve Lazarides’s Pictures on Walls imprint to release the only extant print edition of Girl with Balloon. The pair produced 600 unsigned and unnumbered prints, 150 signed and numbered prints, and 88 colored artist’s proofs, which the artist sold both online and at an annual “squat art concept store” called Santa’s Ghetto. The signed and numbered editions sold for £150, the unsigned prints for £75. Banksy painted reproductions as well, including an edition of 25 spraypaint on canvas Girl with Balloon works and more limited runs spraypainted on metal.

“Banksy, in 2004, had a very niche following,” said Yessica Marks, a senior specialist in Sotheby’s print department, in an interview with Artsy. “He wasn’t an international superstar yet. I don’t know, but I imagine the editions didn’t sell out, and I imagine that the cheaper unsigned edition was more sought-after at the time.”

Banksy
Love is in the Air, signed edition., 2003
Hoxton Gallery

According to Marks, the market for Girl with Balloon, and Banksy works at large, didn’t take off for another few years. In fact, when the first Girl with Balloon print came to the secondary market in March 2005, with an estimate of £300 to £400, it went unsold. That lack of market enthusiasm is unimaginable now, when prints from the unsigned edition regularly sell in excess of £100,000 at auction, and artist’s proofs have sold for more than £1 million.

Girl with Balloon’s path from a bought-in auction lot to a £100,000 standby followed both a general trend for the print market and a unique trajectory for the artist. “The market for prints significantly increased around 2007,” Marks said. “It’s not a coincidence that the following year, in 2008, Banksy launched Pest Control to authenticate his artworks and prevent fakes, because there were quite a few.”

The Pest Control website bills itself as the “parent / legal guardian for the artist Banksy” and remains the “sole point of contact for the artist.” With its authentication processes in place, collectors could feel sure of the legitimacy of the Banksy works they purchased on the secondary market—especially print editions. The market continued to expand, with unsigned editions ballooning past the £1,000 range around 2008. Around the same time, the limited-run painting editions of the work began to enter the secondary market, and in 2008, a Girl with Balloon canvas sold for $158,500 at a Phillips auction.

While Pest Control’s authentication measures might account for some of Girl with Balloon’s burgeoning popularity, another key factor was Banksy’s growing engagement with (and critique of) popular culture and the media throughout the 2000s and 2010s. The artist remade Girl with Balloon a number of times throughout the decades, often using the image’s simultaneous whimsy and solemnity to address contemporary social issues. He painted a version on the Israel and West Bank border wall in 2005. In 2014, he painted a version across various international landmarks that commemorated victims of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Girl with Balloon became more than an evocative image; now, it was an instantly recognizable symbol of social inequality and lost innocence. Banksy himself increasingly embraced the role of commentariat-slash-provocateur over the same time period: His 2010 documentary Exit through the Gift Shop and 2015 installation Dismaland both undermined art world structures at large, visible scales.

Banksy
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP MOVIE THEATER POSTER (UK release), 2010
Silverback Gallery

By the late 2010s, Banksy’s status as a global icon was solidified, and his works were regularly selling for millions at auction. In this climate, a fateful auction of a Girl with Balloon canvas again shifted Banksy’s public perception and sent his market spiraling ever higher.

At a Sotheby’s fall London sale in October 2018, an anonymous collector purchased a Girl with Balloon painting for £1.1 million ($1.4 million). Shortly after the sale was hammered down, a hidden mechanism in the painting’s frame activated, shredding the work live on the podium and sending the tattered strands to the floor. The press widely covered the stunt, which, according to Marks, led to perhaps the greatest expansion yet in Banksy’s presence on the secondary market.

Banksy, Love is in the Bin, 2018. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“The major event was definitely the shredding of 2018—there was a direct impact,” said Marks. “We had clients call us up the following day saying, ‘I have a print from the edition of 600, if I shred it will it be worth more?’ It was such a spectacle; there was such a renewal of interest in the subject afterward.”

Since 2019, a majority of Girl with Balloon prints have sold for six-figure prices at auction, and a number of the colored artist’s proofs have sold for more than $1 million. A proof in the gold colorway sold for £1.1 million ($1.5 million) at a Sotheby’s auction in March 2021 and set the current record for a Banksy print; interest in the work has been sustained, and even grown, over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Banksy
Morons Sepia (Signed), 2007
Maddox Gallery

As for the painting that shredded itself at auction? It sold, in its tattered form, with the new name Love is in the Bin (2018), for $25.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction in October 2021. This set a brand-new auction record for Banksy.

It’s a good estimation for where Girl with Balloon stands today, both in the popular consciousness and that of the market: hyped, yet trenchant. “The market is still very strong,” Marks said, pointing out that 40 to 50 percent of buyers at Sotheby’s two dedicated annual Banksy sales are new to the auction house. “I think that prices for Girl with Balloon really reached their height in 2020 and 2021. We did see a proliferation of unsigned impressions in the market toward the end of [2021], which has resulted in the market for those impressions softening slightly. The market has leveled out—it’s still his most sought-after print, and it’s still extremely popular.”

Justin Kamp