Three Studies of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon

Printing money: How art and cash became the best of friends

Paintings sold for nearly half a billion pounds, historic works hidden away in private penthouse collections, and artists priced out by collectors – has art become a rich man’s game?

Banksy’s Girl With Balloon first appeared on the wall of some steps on Waterloo Bridge in 2002. It depicts a stencilled black and white child reaching for a red, heart-shaped balloon that is drifting just out of reach. On 5 October 2018, it became the centrepiece of a now infamous stunt that seemed to both jibe at the art world and question just how much a piece of art is actually worth.

The scene is Sotheby’s auction house, London. Auctioneer Oliver Barker has just confirmed the sale of a gold-framed copy of Girl With Balloon for £1.04 million. Then, from somewhere in the audience, a covert remote is pressed, causing the artwork to be pushed through the bottom of its frame, via a built-in contraption which shreds almost two-thirds of the piece as audience members look on, open-mouthed.

To the untrained eye, it seems a piece of art has just been destroyed moments after being sold for a seven figure sum. To Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art — and apparent king of spin — not so. “Banksy didn’t destroy an artwork in the auction, he created one,” he said at the time. Rebranded Love Is In The Bin the piece remained with its buyer, who declared it “a piece of art history”.

banksy love is in the bin
Sotheby’s unveils Banksy’s newly-titled ‘Love is in the Bin’ at Sotheby's on October 12, 2018 in London, England. Originally titled ‘Girl with Balloon’, the canvas passed through a hidden shredder seconds after the hammer fell at Sotheby’s London Contemporary Art Evening Sale on October 5, 2018, making it the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's)

Instead of diminishing the work’s value, Banksy had increased it exponentially. According to Danielle Rahm, managing director of New York Fine Art Appraisers, the painting is now one of Banksy’s most iconic works of art and could well fetch up to twice what was paid for it should it be auctioned again.

Whether prank or performance piece (or a bit of both), the revaluing of Banksy’s shredded picture is just one facet of an art world currently obsessed with cash; in 2017, a Basquiat sold for £85 million, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold by a US artist. The same year, Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of Christ, Salvator Mundi, sold for a record £346 million, making it the most expensive painting ever. And, in 2019, Damien Hirst curated a Las Vegas hotel room, complete with butterflies and formaldehyde sharks, which can be rented to the tune of £77,000 per night.

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