A year after Banksy stunned the art world with a booby-trapped painting that shredded itself moments after its sale, the work of the anonymous street artist is once again hitting the auction market — this time with a caustic comment on British politics.
“Devolved Parliament” — at 13 feet wide, Banksy’s biggest known work on canvas — depicts the rambunctious culture of the Commons by populating the green benches with troops of the artist’s signature chimpanzees.
If the £1.5m-£2m estimate is met, it will set a new auction record for the artist after fees are included. The previous high was $1,870,000 in 2008 for a Damien Hirst spot painting stencilled over by Banksy.
Sotheby’s, the auction house that found itself on the receiving end of the artist’s anarchic sensibilities last year, will offer the work at its October 3 sale in London. After the pandemonium that followed the shredding, the auction house appears to be taking no chances, subjecting the painting and frame to thorough checks ahead of its sale.
The painting was created in 2009, long before the tumult of Brexit. But its sale has come at a febrile moment in British politics, with the House of Commons locked in a constitutional battle with the government over its plans to take the UK out of the EU. Boris Johnson, prime minister, suspended parliament for five weeks but has been criticised by MPs and faces a challenge in the Supreme Court over the decision.
The primates depicted by Banksy appear relatively civilised, though some teeth are bared. The real chamber in recent days has seen noisy debate, with MPs shouting, clapping, waving placards and even grabbing the leg of the Speaker as they tried to block the prime minister from proroguing parliament.
The painting will go on public view at Sotheby’s sale rooms from September 28. The auction house declined to name the seller, a private UK collector who had the work on display in his office. It was painted for a Banksy exhibition at Bristol Museum, after which it was sold, but returned there on loan in March for a show timed for the March 29 Brexit departure day, before an extension was agreed.
While “Devolved Parliament” predates the Brexit referendum, the EU issue has preoccupied the street artist in several works. One vast mural painted on a derelict building near the Dover ferry terminal showed an EU flag, with a man on a ladder chiselling off one of its symbolic stars.
After scaffolding appeared in front of the wall last month, however, the painting was mysteriously whitewashed. Banksy on Thursday revealed he had planned to update the mural on October 31, the planned day of Brexit, showing the flag crumpled on the ground. “Never mind. I guess a big white flag says it just as well,” he commented on his Instagram account.
Compared with the big names of contemporary art, whose works frequently sell for many millions, Banksy’s work is modestly priced for an artist named in a YouGov poll in July as the fourth most popular of all time in the UK, ahead of Picasso and Monet.
Asked if the art world was guilty of snobbery over the output of the Bristolian prankster, Sotheby’s senior director Alex Branczik said art history showed that popular artists were not always recognised by the art establishment of the time, pointing to the critical drubbing received by the French Impressionists in their early years. But he added that many of the world’s top art collectors had Banksy works in their collections.
Banksy’s notoriety — and potential market value — was amplified after his Sotheby’s stunt last year, which Mr Branczik witnessed from the prime vantage point of the auction rostrum. Flying into New York this week, he said he had been held up by a US border guard who, on discovering his role in the course of standard questioning, insisted on quizzing him closely about the shredding episode while a large queue built up behind him. “It’s incredible how Banksy captured the imagination of people around the world,” he said.
Christie’s this week launched a dedicated online Banksy sale featuring a selection of prints including “I Can’t Believe You Morons Buy This Shit”, a satire on the auction market.
Get alerts on UK arts when a new story is published