A guide to collecting Banksy
Two Christie’s specialists discuss the life and art of the world’s most famous street artist. Illustrated with past and upcoming lots offered at Christie’s
In July 2019, anonymous graffiti artist Banksy (b. 1974) was voted Britain’s favourite artist, beating Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet to the title.
Although his identity remains a mystery, Banksy’s provocative stencils are among the most iconic and controversial images in Street Art. He first ‘sprayed’ — or ‘bombed’ — the walls of Bristol in the southwest of England in the early 1990s, but his fame soared after he moved to London in the early 2000s. He has since left his mark on cities around the world, from Barcelona to San Francisco.
He has an Academy Award-nominated documentary (2010’s Exit throught the Gift Shop), a pop-up ‘bemusement park’ (Dismaland, created in 2015), a dystopian hotel (The Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem), and an auction record of $1.9 million to his name. His collectors include celebrity actors, musicians and artists, and now the British Museum, which in February 2019 added a fake banknote depicting Diana, Princess of Wales, to its collection of coins, medals and currency.
So, how did Banksy’s art go from the street to saleroom? Here, Prints & Multiples specialist James Baskerville and Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist Alma Davidsohn explore Banksy’s commercial career and most popular works at auction.
Banksy versus the Art Market
The irony that The Establishment has embraced his anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian art is not lost on Banksy. His screenprint Morons lampoons the auction world: the image parodies a photograph (below) of Christie’s record-breaking sale of Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers in 1987.
In place of the flowers, Banksy writes, ‘I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.’ An edition of this print sold for £32,500 in an online sale of the same name in September 2019.
Banksy has been selling his art since the 1990s
Alongside his street art, Banksy has been creating works for sale for more than 20 years. The earliest pieces at auction date from 1998, while his earliest commercial prints are from 2002. Rude Copper (below) is one such example.
‘In the beginning, Banksy didn’t create prints to make money and they were sold for such low prices,’ expains Prints & Multiples specialist James Baskerville. ‘People were buying the art on their credit cards as if it was a poster, with no awareness of its future value.’
Banksy continued to sell his work in later, now-famous solo exhibitions, including Barely Legal in Los Angeles in 2006, and Banksy versus Bristol Museum in 2009.
His most iconic images fetch the highest prices
Banksy’s most sought-after editions, canvases and sculptures are often directly inspired by his graffiti art.
Girl with Balloon depicts a girl extending her hand towards a red heart-shaped balloon, and was originally a series of stencil murals first sprayed in London 2002.
‘Editions of this iconic artwork are the most desirable Banksy pieces at auction,’ says Baskerville. The image of the girl with the red balloon is synonymous with Banksy, but there are other variations in purple, blue, pink and gold, although these are extremely rare. In September 2019, an artist’s proof with a gold balloon sold for £395,250, more than double its low estimate.
NOLA, also known as Umbrella Girl, first appeared in New Orleans in 2008. It was created in response to the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Editions with White Rain and Grey Rain were subsequently made for general release in a total edition of 352.
Banksy also made a small number of artist’s proofs and ‘gifts’ with orange, yellow or multicoloured rain. The sale of NOLA (Pink and Yellow Rain) for £90,000 at Christie’s London in 2017 set a record for the artwork at auction.
Napalm (above) is Banksy’s interpretation of The Terror of War (1972), Nick Ut’s photograph of children fleeing the aftermath of a napalm blast during the Vietnam War. ‘The play between the horrific war image and the icons of American consumerism encapsulates Banksy’s anti-capitalist and counter-cultural messages,’ says Baskerville.
Rats and chimps
According to Baskerville, Banksy’s works featuring rats and chimps are among the most recognisable and sought-after. ‘There are many variations of the Placard Rats, with different slogans,’ says the specialist. ‘A picture of a chimpanzee bearing the words “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”, is also among the most celebrated.’
Original Banksy graffiti art can command high prices
By the late 2000s, the art world had caught up with Banksy’s popular appeal, and many of his works had been removed from their original public settings and sold.
Kissing Coppers (2004) for example, originally on the wall of a Brighton pub, sold for $575,000 in Miami in 2014. More recently, Seasons Greetings (2018), which appeared on a nondescript garage owned by Ian Lewis in Port Talbot in Wales, sold for a six-figure sum.
While Banksy has always wanted his street art pieces to remain in their original contexts, his graffiti art belongs to the owners of the building on which they are sprayed. The owners are thus able to expunge the work as vandalism, leave it as public art, or sell it at will.
Since the 1990s, Banksy has ‘bombed’ cities across the UK, including London, Brighton and Bristol, as well as urban hotspots across America, Australia and Canada. He strikes with no prior warning, so the next ‘sprayed’ city or dwelling could be yours.
His prints come in both unsigned and signed editions — and a Pest Control certificate is essential
Banksy’s unsigned prints are created in higher edition numbers. As a result, they are more affordable than their signed counterparts. Unsigned and signed artworks are equally legitimate — a certificate from Pest Control, Banksy’s ‘handling service’, is the proof of authenticity that you need.
Banksy set up Pest Control in 2008 to authenticate his artworks and prevent fakes from circulating on the market. All Banksy artworks created after 2009 are sold with a Pest Control certificate. The service can retroactively issue certificates for works created before 2008. Pest Control is now the only channel through which you can buy new primary market works by the artist.
Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist Alma Davidsohn warns that there are a lot of fake Pest Control certificates in circulation, but these are immediately obvious to an expert. ‘If you’re unsure about your certificate, show it to a specialist who can advise you,’ she says. ‘Or, contact Pest Control directly.’
Banksy is currently only trading on the secondary market
‘It’s not possible to buy a Banksy on the primary market these days,’ says Davidsohn. ‘A decade ago, the artist was selling directly through certified dealers, at exhibitions, or through his former printers, Pictures on Walls. But today he only sells through Pest Control, and nothing is currently available.’
When buying a Banksy on the secondary market, our specialists advise to buy from a trusted source such as a big auction house or a reputable dealer. All Banksy artworks offered at Christie’s come with Pest Control certificates.
His market is on the rise
In Davidsohn’s opinion, Banksy has earned his place in art history. ‘He’s not a fad that will disappear. His market is high but steady. We see a peak when he pulls a stunt, but no sale has broken the $1.9 million record set in 2008.’
It’s also a matter of supply and demand. Baskerville points out that Banksy had not made a new edition since Choose Your Weapon (above) in 2010, until Sale Ends (v.2) was released from the Pictures on Walls closing down sale in 2017, a reworked version of Banksy’s original screenprint from his Barely Legal show in 2006.
‘If he continues not to release any new editions, the prices for the existing prints will continue to rise,’ adds the specialist. ‘Banksy’s market doesn’t show any signs of decreasing,’
Look after your Banksy — and it will look after you
Although Banksy’s street art is weathered, most of his commercial works are issued in pristine condition — be it on paper, canvas, cardboard or stencilled on a wooden box. Care for them as you would any other artwork: hang canvases and prints away from direct sunlight and changing humidity. Works on paper should be framed beneath UV-protective glass.
It’s just as important to look after the Pest Control certificate: you will need it again if you decide to sell your Banksy.