A Million Dollar Object of Art or Hoax?


What’s All the Hype About?

Right now, the art world is buzzing about a never-before-seen event that concluded the Sotheby’s auction in London last week. The final art piece offered for sale was Girl with Balloon, anacrylic and spray paint on canvas. When bidding wars ceased, the piece sold for $1.4 million. Seconds after the auctioneer announced the sale, a loud alarm sounded, and the canvas began sliding down the frame. Half of the canvas passed through the base of the frame and exited the other side in lengthy shreds.

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How Did This Happen?

The creative mind behind this controversial piece is known as Banksy, an anonymous street artist whose work has a history of sparking conversation because of its unconventionality. Previous Banksy stunts include secretly hanging his artwork in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art for two hours and covertly placing an inflatable doll dressed as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner on the Disneyland property. Suffice it to say the shredding of Girl with Balloon was shocking, but perhaps not surprising.
Banksy revealed that he had built a shredder into the base of the frame in the event that the piece was ever offered for auction. Whether Sotheby’s knew about the prank is still unknown, though the auction house denies any knowledge of the plan. It is curious, however, that Girl with Balloon was reserved for the last slot of the auction and was hung on the wall as opposed to being placed on a podium, which is typically how the art is displayed.

What Does This Mean?

Now, the following questions arise:

  • Is the buyer stuck with a shredded piece of art?
  • Is anyone liable for the damaged canvas?
  • Is the artwork ruined and rendered worthless, or has it become more valuable?

First, we need to determine whether or not the sale of the piece was even effective. The law says that the sale of artwork in an auction context is official when the auctioneer pounds the hammer on the podium. Clearly, then, Girl with Balloon was officially sold to the buyer at the sound of the hammer.
So does that mean that the buyer became the owner the minute the sale was complete and has to accept the self-destructed work? Not necessarily. Ownership in a purchased piece does not transfer to the buyer until the buyer pays for the piece in full. So even though the sale was effective, the buyer did not become the legal owner at that point in time and could still decide not to go through with the purchase.
The buyer then has thirty days after the date of the auction to collect the purchased lot, and Sotheby’s is liable for any damage done to the work before it is collected. This suggests that Sotheby’s could be responsible for the shredding of the work and if so, might have to pay the buyer a sum of money to compensate for the damage…that is, if it is even considered “damaged” at all.
Experts in the field of art history say that this self-destructed work is not damaged but is actually more valuable than its original form. The piece has probably more than doubled in value because of its unprecedented sale. In fact, Banksy deemed the shredded painting a new creation and gave it its own name: “Love Is In The Bin.” After lengthy discussions and negotiations with Sotheby’s this week, the buyer, a private art collector, revealed that she is going to go through with the purchase, believing that she has “ended up with her own piece of art history.”
Serious collectors of art may view this artistic maneuver one way, while the everyday consumer may see it quite differently. The self-destruction of a piece of art during an auction certainly has far-reaching artistic and legal implications, as we grapple with questions about the definition of “damaged,” ownership rights, liability, and artistic value. Even after Girl with Balloon had sold, Banksy was not finished creating his masterpiece. As Leonardo DaVinci once said, “art is never finished.”

About the Author
Madeleine Shroyer is our firm’s rising expert on fashion and non-profit law. During her law school career at SMU, Madeleine interned at a boutique law firm, which taught her the importance of teamwork and effective communication.
Learn more about Madeleine Schroyer HERE.