How Shredding Banksy's Painting Made It Worth Even More

Imagine the confusion. You're at Sotheby's, one of the world's most prestigious auction houses, located in swanky Mayfair, London. You're there to bid on an original of one of the world's most popular pieces of art: "Girl with Balloon," a 2006 stencil by the world-renowned and, still to this day, anonymous British street artist, Banksy. The estimate is around $350,000. It's a staggering amount. Luckily, you're loaded — but then again, so is everyone else in the auction room. It feels like the lot is certain to exceed its estimate, and so it does; you're still in the bidding by the time the price hits $1 million, then keep bidding as the price climbs higher. Eventually, you score the winning bid, hearing the auctioneer declare "Sold!" Your hands are still shaking with the adrenaline coursing through your veins as you agree to part with $1.4 million for one of Banksy's most iconic pieces.

But immediately, the atmosphere in the auction room changes, as an unexpected beeping noise starts emanating from the painting you have just bought, even as it hangs there. The crowd begins to murmur, and then, all of a sudden, your newly-purchased "Girl with Balloon" begins to slip within its frame, then comes out the underside half-shredded.

The crowd is aghast, as this video from the BBC shows, while the auctioneers take the painting and take it backstage to be examined. You are left dumbstruck, wondering what has happened to the piece of art to which you just committed a fortune.

Banksy's most lucrative prank

The incident, which occurred in October 2018, made headlines around the world, but it wasn't an accident or some act of mismanagement by the auctioneers. Rather, it turned out that Banksy had orchestrated the stunt himself, by sneakily installing a hidden shredder within the picture frame itself — which Banksy's team, Pest Control, had told the auction house was "integral to the artwork," according to Sotheby's Alex Branczik, speaking to the BBC. As a video posted by Banksy later revealed, the device was apparently activated within the auction room via remote control.

The "screw you" implicit in Banksy's prank seemed to be a calculated affront against the very act of buying and selling art; a bombastic reminder that artists have the power to remain in control of their own work even as it falls into the hands of private collectors. But despite depriving the buyer — an "unnamed lady" according to the BBC — of an original "Girl with Balloon," the owner of the purposefully damaged piece is apparently delighted with the result. "At first I was shocked, but I realized I would end up with my own piece of art history," per the BBC.

According to Esquire, the piece is now estimated to be worth $2.8 million, twice the amount the winning buyer had paid for it.

A new Banksy altogether

When Banksy's team built a shredder into their Sotheby's lot, they created something unique, and when they hit the button they instantly ensured the price of the object for sale would increase dramatically. As Esquire explains: "This is because the original piece was one version of a work that Banksy has reproduced many times, while 'Love is in the Bin' is totally unique."

"Love is in the Bin" — the title for the shredded painting, as a single, standalone piece — is now considered to be a new piece of art, in a way entirely distinct from the stencil of "Girl with Balloon" deployed in its construction, as evidenced that it has since been put on public display under its own name.

Art critics, such as the BBC's Will Gompertz, were buzzing with excitement. "It was brilliant in both conception and execution. Take its initial creation, which was a stunning piece of site-specific, mechanically-aided, performance art; an attention-grabbing spectacle taking place within an attention-grabbing spectacle, which highlighted through dark satire how art has become an investment commodity to be auctioned off to ultra-wealthy trophy-hunters."

However, in a video titled "Shred the Love" posted to Banksy's YouTube channel, the artist claimed that the stunt hadn't quite gone to plan. The video shows that, originally, his team had imaged that the shredder would destroy the painting in its entirety so that it fell to the floor in pieces. "In rehearsals it worked every time," the video says.