Banksy’s Rapidly Rising Market, Explained
The ins and outs of the market for Banksy works can seem as byzantine as the theories about the artist’s true identity. (Personally, I’m fond of the “Banksy is actually a collective” theory.)
Banksy has closely guarded his identity for decades, and he’s also long played a uniquely active role in shaping the way his work is presented and sold. From the infamous shredded work at Sotheby’s in 2018, to his publicly denouncing and suing organizers of unauthorized exhibitions, and a recent trademark dispute with a greeting card company, Banksy’s public image as an irreverent, globetrotting trickster is sometimes at odds with his very concerted efforts to control the market for his work.
Those efforts often fall to Pest Control, the firm that authenticates Banksy’s works and sells them on the primary market. There is a vast economy of objects attributed or related to the artist circulating at all times, from exhibition posters to merchandise associated with specific projects like his hotel in Bethlehem. And, spurred by the rising prices, there is also a growing number of fakes.
But as far as major auction houses are concerned, the prints and unique works with certificates from Pest Control are the only truly authentic Banksy works—and the market for them shows no signs of slowing.
A Banksy print bonanza
Banksy, Girl with Balloon, 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Banksy, Love Rat, 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
On Friday, Sotheby’s closed its third dedicated sale of Banksy prints. Every last one of the 23 prints offered in the online auction sold, and each achieved a price at least double its high estimate—several sold for prices four, five, or even 10 times their high estimates. The sale’s total take of £2 million ($2.7 million) more than tripled its presale high estimate, and more than half of the buyers were buying from Sotheby’s for the first time. The auction’s top lot, a version of the iconic Girl with Balloon (2004), elicited 24 bids that pushed it to more than five times its low estimate of £80,000 ($103,000). It ultimately sold for £438,500 ($567,000), an auction record for a work from that particular edition of 150 prints and an even more startling result considering what the seller originally paid.
“When the consignor purchased it in 2004 from Pest Control, she told me she paid £275 [around $500],” said Yessica Marks, a deputy director and senior prints specialist at Sotheby’s in London. The collector got in touch with Sotheby’s after reading about the 2018 shredding of another version of Girl with Balloon. “She called us to get an insurance valuation, and she was so shocked to learn that it was worth £80,000 to £120,000, she decided to consign it.” The decision paid off handsomely: In 16 years, the print’s value had increased to nearly 1,600 times its original purchase price. That result is exceptional, but not wholly surprising.
The “iconic” factor
Banksy, Girl with Balloon, 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The Girl with Balloon print that sold last week had most of the hallmarks of a desirable Banksy work, especially a Banksy print. Most notably, it features one of his most beloved images, which emerged as the United Kingdom’s favorite artwork in a 2017 poll.
“It’s mainly the image and the message behind the image that people are attracted to,” Marks said. “If you look at the works that achieved the highest prices in the sale, they’re the really iconic works that you would associate with Banksy. When you think of Banksy you think of Girl with Balloon, you think of rats, it’s those sorts of images that sell really well.”
The print was also in good condition, which is not always the case, Marks said. “A lot of Banksy prints you find are in good condition because they’re fairly recent, but Girl with Balloon was only worth £275 when it was issued in 2004, so it wasn’t considered fine art as it is now, so you do sometimes see prints that haven’t been looked after as well as they should have been.”
Another factor that can influence the value of a Banksy is the seemingly endless cycle of news related to the artist and his work. The Sotheby’s auction’s opening lot, for instance, was a version of the famous work Love Is in the Air (2003), depicting a protester about to throw a bouquet; that same image was at the center of Banksy’s recent trademark dispute. The print elicited 37 bids and sold for £214,200 ($277,000), or more than 10 times its high estimate of £20,000 ($25,000).
The proof is in the proofs
Banksy, Get Out While You Can, 2004. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Banksy, Flying Copper, 2003. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The steadily rising demand and prices for Banksy’s works are also influenced in no small part by the very limited supply. “Banksy hasn’t made a print since 2017, which is when he made Sale Ends (V.2), and before that it was 2010,” Marks said. “It’s not like his prints are coming into the market all the time.”
Typically, Banksy creates two editions based on each of his images, Marks explained. One is made in an edition of 150, with each one signed by the artist. These tend to be the more expensive editions. He also usually concurrently creates a larger edition of around 600 unsigned works. And lately, a third group of his prints have become especially popular.
“His artist’s proofs are now becoming more and more sought after,” Marks explained. “With Girl with Balloon, he did the edition of 150 signed, and then the unsigned edition of 600, and then he also made 88 artist’s proofs wherein each impression the balloon has a different color—there’s gold and purple and pink. Those artist’s proofs with unique colors are becoming more and more sought after.” An artist’s proof of Girl with Balloon featuring a purple balloon was the top lot in an online-only auction of Banksy prints that ended today at Christie’s, more than doubling its high estimate of £350,000 ($447,000) to sell for £791,250 (just over $1 million)—a world record for a Banksy print.
From unique colors to unique works
Banksy, Show me the Monet, 2005. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Collectors operating in the upper echelons of the Banksy market are after the unique paintings and sculptures, which are rarer still than the artist’s proofs. Last year at Sotheby’s, his enormous painting Devolved Parliament (2009) smashed its high estimate of £2 million ($2.4 million) to sell for £9.8 million ($12.1 million), which remains Banksy’s auction record. This summer, the auction house achieved his second-highest result when it sold the 2017 triptych Mediterranean sea view 2017 for £2.2 million ($2.8 million) in its virtual “Rembrandt to Richter” auction.
Sotheby’s is now angling to top this summer’s result when it offers the irreverent spoof of a Claude Monet painting, Show me the Monet (2005), on October 21st, with an estimate of £3 million to £5 million ($3.8 million–$6.3 million). With the increasingly global appeal of Banksy’s market, the virtual nature of that auction could mean Sotheby’s will be seeing even more money for Banksy’s Monet.
“His appeal has spread across the globe, it’s not just in Britain and Europe,” said Marks, noting a prevalence of buyers from the Middle East and Japan during the print sale, which ultimately drew bidders from four continents. “People are very much connecting with his work at the moment.”