As time goes on, watching the performance of works by Banksy (b.1975) at auction becomes more and more like looking at an investor’s dashboard.
Records for individual editions of his trademark stencil-styled screenprints are being set routinely and his prices are now leaving even some of the great modern masters in the shade.
Back at the end of last year it was striking to see a single Banksy screenprint from an edition of 600 outselling a complete set of 20 Henri Matisse (1869-1954) Jazz pochoirs, a key body of work in the printed medium produced in a smaller edition of 250. The works in question fetched £240,000 and £230,000 respectively at a Bonhams print sale in December.
While Matisse’s cut-out compositions hold a special place for knowledgeable collectors, the demand for such works is being easily outstripped by Banksy prints not just because the artist has become something of a modern phenomenon but also due to deep-pocketed buyers being well attuned to their investment potential.
On hearing the price for that Banksy print at Bonhams (a copy of his most widely recognised work Girl with Balloon), an early collector in this market told me that copies of the same edition were available privately for less money.
Only half in jest, he wondered if bidders had realised there was a buyer’s premium to pay, or whether they had confused it with an even-more-valuable signed edition of the same print.
But perhaps a more credible explanation for the fact that prices are hitting such levels could be that existing players who already own multiple copies are keen to push up prices further, thereby increasing the value of their own holdings.
Bidding more becomes a win-win in this situation – you either win the lot and gain a commodity currently rising in value or, by acting as the underbidder, you raise the financial bar for when you come to sell your existing stock.
All of this is my own speculation but, whether or not the market is overheated and a correction is coming, one thing of which I am certain is that Banksy is not going to go away. I was slightly surprised to hear the views of a prominent Old Master specialist on this matter recently, who believed Banksy was an “interesting artist” who would be around for the long term and that it is better for owners to keep hold of their works rather than cash in on them now.
Could Banksy reach the heights of Andy Warhol, for example? If so, that price for Girl with Balloon in December may look cheap in five, 10 or 50 years’ time.
Plenty to gain
On the supply side, so far at least there does not seem to be too much sign of a slowing down either.
Stephan Ludwig, the chief executive and founder of Forum Auctions (25% buyer’s premium), which has gained a significant foothold in the Banksy market, said that the “near trebling” of values in the last year had encouraged both recent and more longstanding owners to consign.
“It is definitely the case that some of our buyers from 2019 and before are looking to realise material gains,” he said. “Also there continues to be a steady supply from those prescient collectors who purchased Banksy’s works in the early noughties for £100 or £200.”
But while he felt there were a few signs that prices may now be stabilising after a period of astonishing growth, the firm’s latest Only Banksy auction on March 5 once again highlighted the current fervent demand.
It set eight records for individual editions out of the 29 lots on offer – an impressive feat during any market cycle.
Among the buyers was a European eCommerce entrepreneur who bid £200,000 for yet another copy of Girl With Balloon, while increased interest was also reported coming from the US and Asia.
Overall, the live webcast sale raised £1.79m against a pre-sale low estimate of £1.6m, which was in line with Forum’s two most recent Only Banksy auctions in December and January.
While Ludwig was button lipped about how many of these sales the firm might hold this year – “that would be sharing trade secrets,” he said – it seems likely that Forum aims to repeat them every six to eight weeks, consignments permitting.
Happy when it rains
Among the lots bringing the strongest competition at the latest sale were two signed screenprints from Banksy’s 2008 Nola series. Identically sized at 2ft 5in x 21½in (76 x 55cm), they were both printed and published by Pictures on Walls (the East London print house used by Banksy to distribute his screenprints from around 2003 onwards). As with all works at Forum, they were accompanied by Pest Control certificates.
Offered separately, they demonstrated the way different print runs with varying colours play an important part in this market.
The image itself first appeared in 2008 sprayed onto the side of a building in the Marigny district of New Orleans. Originally referred to as Girl with Umbrella or Rain Girl, it relates to the hurricanes Katrina and Gustav that devastated the US city in 2005 and 2008 respectively. It soon became known as Nola (referring to New Orleans) which was its title when Banksy released it as a limited edition print.
The first edition ran to 289 signed copies (all with white rain), but a later run of 63 was produced with grey rain. This was followed by neon orange rain (32), neon yellow rain (31) and multicolour rain (66).*
The two main determinants of value in the Banksy prints market are the desirabilty of subject matter and rarity.
While Nola is one of the more sought-after subjects, the prices for the different editions relate to the number produced. At Forum, the scarcer example of the grey colourway was offered first with a £80,000-120,000 estimate and sold for £130,000 to an established UK buyer in the Banksy market.
The price was a record for this edition – it meant that the highest price for Nola (Grey Rain) has now increased by 236% in 18 months. It was also the second-highest price for any Nola print, only behind the £180,000 at Sotheby’s last September for an example of the even-rarer neon yellow version.
Meanwhile, the copy of Nola (White Rain) was pitched at £90,000-120,000 at Forum. While it made slightly less, £115,000, it was still the third-highest sum for a Nola print and here represented a 21% rise in the highest price for this print in under six months. Together these sums underlined the acceleration of demand in the market even, for the most part, without live auctions.
Another Banksy subject generating intense demand currently is his earlier Pulp Fiction print from 2004.
In fact, any print from around 2005 or before holds a special interest for collectors and the auction record for this edition of 150 signed screenprints was broken three times in three months before Forum’s latest sale, most recently at Bonhams in December when one fetched £110,000.
The 19½ x 2ft 3in (49 x 70cm) print at Forum was estimated at £100,000-150,000 and was knocked down to a UK collector at £123,000, lifting the bar once more. Another version of the print, but one of the unsigned run of 600, made £55,000 against a £40,000-60,000 estimate. It was among the lots bringing bidding from the US. While the record for this edition is £65,000, it would seem that perhaps one too many copies have been available recently to sustain that price level.
* A unique impression of the Nola print with a hand-finished red dot to the figure’s ear was also created later in 2009 to be sold for charity. At the time of going press it had re-emerged on the market at a Christie’s timed auction estimated at £200,000-300,000.