In unprecedented scenes this weekend, queues snaked down the street from auctioneer Sotheby’s Mayfair gallery in central London on Saturday and Sunday to view a controversial piece of artwork of street artist Banksy.
The artwork in the news was once known as Girl with Balloon, but is now known as Love Is in the Bin.
The painting shot to notoriety when it was shredded seconds after being sold by Sotheby's for £1.04 million (Dh4.9 million) on October 5. Since the destruction of the piece, it has now been valued as being worth twice as much as the woman buyer who paid for it.
“When the hammer came down last week and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realise that I would end up with my own piece of art history,” the unnamed European woman was quoted as saying.
Understandably, there has been much debate about the authenticity of the stunt, and whether the auction house and others were complicit in it.
As BBC arts commentator Will Gompertz noted on Twitter, “Make of this what you will. Sotheby’s say 1,000 people per hour queued to see the Banksy yesterday. The last time a picture caused this sort of reaction at an auction house was Salvator Mundi at Christie’s, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.”
As the incredible interest in his latest public action shows, Banksy occupies a prominent position in the British public's appreciation of modern art. Notionally anonymous but identified by some media outlets as a 40-something male from Bristol called Robin Gunningham, the artist was at the forefront for street art in the city in the 1990s.
Created with spray paint and stencils, the works appeared across spaces such as the walls of private houses and businesses and were embraced by local communities for their humour. A piece on the side of a health clinic in Bristol, for instance, showed a naked man hanging by a hand from the window of his lover's bedroom while the woman's husband peered out of the window seeking him out.
Girl with Balloon originally appeared on the side of Waterloo Bridge in south London during the 2000s. While he continued to create public works, Banksy was represented by an agent and created individual works, often series of his street art, which began to sell for tens of thousands of pounds and were snapped up by celebrities such as supermodel Kate Moss.
Banksy continued to maintain his position as street artist and an auction darling: bespoke works sold for up to £288,000 (Dh1.4 million). His public art creations delighted locals while posing legal issues for authorities trying to balance their opposition to graffiti with appreciation of the interest generated in his pieces.
Businesses, where Banksy had stencilled pieces, often tried to remove the actual walls they had been painted on so that they could sell them.
In 2010, his film Exit Through the Gift Shop premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Later that year he animated the opening sequence to an episode of The Simpsons which attacked the commercialism of the show but also invited criticism for working with a show produced by Rupert Murdoch's Fox network.
Five years later, he took on his largest endeavour when he opened Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare, a fading seaside resort in the West Country. It was a dystopian take on an amusement park that also featured work from artists such as Damien Hirst and sold out during its limited run.
Since then, Banksy's political work has stepped up another gear, as he has created artworks in places such as Jungle in Calais, where migrants attempting to cross the Channel to the UK lived in squalid refugee camps. In 2017, he created the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem to protest against Israel's occupation of the West Bank, attracting worldwide attention.
Opinion is divided on his latest prank, and whether Banksy and the auctioneers had colluded. "I think Sotheby's was in on it," Stephanie Fielding, who queued to see the shredded work, told The Guardian. "One would hope in an age of security consciousness they would have known that such a contraption was inside the artwork."
Others preferred to defend their hero’s integrity. “I don’t think Sotheby’s knew,” Matteo Perazzo, told the newspaper. “Banksy is opposed to the art establishment, so it would be weird if he had colluded with them.”
The upshot of it all is that an artist who trades on public interest and notoriety has succeeded in putting the art world on the front page of newspapers and websites across the globe. Regardless of the central mystery of the story, Banksy breaks art out of its relative minority audience which can only be a good thing.