Graffiti artist Banksy suffered an embarrassing evening Monday as a number of his greatest works failed to sell at a prestigious Los Angeles auction house. While his aerosol-powered contemporaries enjoyed strong sales at British auctioneers Bonham's on Sunset Blvd, Banksy's spray-painted rats received few nibbles from buyers in Hollywood. Four of the artist's most famous works remain unsold.
“It's obviously disappointing when pieces don't sell,” explains Bonham's urban art specialist, Gareth Williams. “I was surprised that the Gangsta Rat piece did not find a buyer,” he admits, speaking of the iconic work chosen for the auction catalogue's front cover.
Williams said he believed the price was right, estimated at $100,000- $150,000, but suggested the storm in New York may have affected telephone bidding. (In art auctions, if the bidding does not reach a predetermined level, called a “reserve” price, it fails to sell.) Other Banksy pieces priced more affordably from $8,000 failed to receive many bids at all, and were met with that hideous indifference only found in auction sale rooms.
Let us paint the landscape of the Banksy market before tonight: In 2006, Banksy first exhibited in L.A. to rave reviews, and sold $5 million worth of art in two hours. At Bonham's March sale in London, Girl and Balloon was one of 18 pieces that sold, fetching £73,250 ($117,500), five times its estimate. Leopard and Barcode sold for £75,650 ($121,000), among frenzied bidding. “The auction started half an hour late because people were queuing around the block to register. We had TV cameras in the room. It was just absolutely phenomenal,” boasts Williams.
Last night's Los Angeles sale was decidedly lower key. The art crowd was in attendance, dressing — as urban art collectors do — like they've crashed here through the window of Party City. One lady bidder wore a distracting disco ball jacket. But the room was not full. Two bloggers occupied the small press area. There was excitement as a Banksy stencil of a bomb strapped to an elephant's back fetched $47,500.
“Eighty five, do I have eighty five, ninety. All done at ninety? I have ninety. Do I have ninety five…?” the auctioneer chanted with gusto, as one blogger urgently reported on Twitter that: “Paparazzi Rat piece goes for $75,000.” But it didn't actually go anywhere. Some were fooled by the “chandelier” bids — fake bids that auctioneers sometimes insert into the proceedings to try to raise demand for the work or to save embarrassment when no one is bidding. The auction house had put Paparazzi Rat, the 2004 stencil on canvas described as “essential Banksy,” at the top of the bill. But it bombed.
Up next: What did sell?
It should be mentioned that 13 of Banksy's other works did sell at auction, meeting their reserve prices, but few of them exceeding their estimates like the artist's work historically has done. There were bargains for Banksy aficionados, but is his popularity waning? Was this just a bad night for the mystery artist or does the disposable nature of Banksy's art mean that ultimately, it has a sell by date?
The parody twitter feed, @BanskyIdeas, suggests ideas for the artist to try next, like: “Stencil of a group of New York hipsters attempting to Instagram photos of the hurricane as they're sucked into a vortex of wind.” They're delightfully feasible, but they underline the simplicity of Banksy's statements: These throwaway protests are designed for the short attention span of the new bourgeoisie. Banksy is to the art world what Lady Gaga is to fashion.
Still, argues Williams, who has been with Bonham's 15 years, this aspect of Banksy's work is what makes him great. “Banksy is very accessible, very immediate,” says Williams. “He deals with issues people deal with on a day to day basis, and he is definitely still relevant.”
During a rare interview with LA Weeklyin 2010, when asked about what the director Werner Herzog referred to as the “magic” of L.A., Banksy chuckled: “In Los Angeles, you can rise without a trace.” It's also a town where even the most waterproof of stars can sink without trace.