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The Banksy Saga Continued: How is Sotheby’s’ Reputation not in Shreds?

My previous post discussed my view on how Banksy and his team pulled off the most successful PR campaign the art world has ever seen. But there is a more pressing question I have been mulling over for the last month: how have Sotheby’s survived relatively unscathed? Banksy’s stunt was self-promotion; an anti-establishment statement that was both well-planned and perfectly executed. Sotheby’s campaign, however (if we are to believe the auction house played no part in the events) was wholly reactive. This post will take a wider view on the events of 5th October and beyond, analysing Sotheby’s’ involvement, and examining how their reputation management skills – and a lot of luck – prevented a flurry of negative publicity.

I’ll begin with the obvious: were Sotheby’s involved? Did they turn a blind eye – or even help – for the sake publicity, and to keep an artist and their sellers onside? My gut says they were in on it. There are a few key points fueling this argument, the main one centering around how the shredder could have snuck in undetected , past so many checks. Now, Pest Control stipulated that the frame could not be removed, as it was integral to the work, and may damage the piece. This in itself is not unusual for contemporary art (an Old Masters piece would have had to be checked for condition reports etc), but why the piece was not x-rayed, we do not know. And how or why did the third party conservator that apparently examined the piece not see the slit at the base of the frame, or notice the unusual weight of the piece. And secondly, why did Sotheby’s agree to the stipulations of this piece being hung, in the evening sale, as the final lot, when the estimate was so low? Finally, how was the alarm set off without any fore-warning, and all recorded so perfectly for a video to be released less than 48 hours later? This seems a little suspect to me.

But then my reputation management demon butts in. Realistically, why would Sotheby’s let this happen? They had much more to lose than to gain. ‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’, they say, but what is the positive spin on the fact your security measures are dubious, your experts aren’t examining the pieces thoroughly, and your huge organisation can be conned by a mere street artist? This draws so many of Sotheby’s processes into disrepute. Also, from Banksy’s point of view, of course he wanted it to go off without a hitch, but if his aim was to leave the auction house red-faced, would he really collude with it? And if he did, why not embarrass the institution more by claiming their involvement, rather than stating ‘no collusion’? Surely involving an auction house in an anti-establishment statement is too hypocritical even for Banksy?

I personally think there must have been some collusion – somebody inside, potentially even – or alongside – the third party conservator. But I fail to see how the whole organisation, or specifically those in charge could have known and let it go ahead. Had they done, they had a very lucky escape as the publicity should have been far more negative. Either way, ‘no prior knowledge’ was the only stance Sotheby’s could take without opening itself up to legal issues, under the 1979 Sale of Goods Act (sections 13 and 14), which state that the goods must correspond to their description, or be fit for purpose.

Banksy, 'Love is in the Bin', 2018

Sotheby’s were lucky on a number of points. The piece didn’t completely shred as Banksy supposedly intended. Therefore it was possible to authenticate a new artwork that could still be hung. Potentially because of this – and no doubt with advice from an art consultant or the auction house – the buyer still went ahead with the sale. To clarify, I would have told my client to proceed with the purchase, buying not only a more valuable piece in the long run, but also a slice of art history. Had the buyer reneged, however, there would have been a plethora of arguments and legal battles. Was title passed when the hammer went down, and therefore should the new owner still have to pay for the piece? Could Sotheby’s default? Would Banksy be liable to pay for the destroyed piece, or did the owner collude, and therefore be owed nothing? So many questions that luckily Sotheby’s do not have to answer.

So assuming the stance of ignorance, how did Sotheby’s react? The first quote set the tone for their whole campaign. Shortly after the auction, Alex Branczik, Sotheby's senior director and head of contemporary art in Europe stated: "It appears we just got Banksy-ed,". A clever, humble and jokey response to something that should have left Sotheby’s with egg on their face. It also highlighted immediately the fact that they had no prior knowledge, and tried to play down their shortcomings. What came next, however, was slightly more questionable. Branczik posted on his Instagram an image of Christopher Wool’s stencilled painting, ‘Fuck em if they can’t take a joke’, and captioned it ‘Banksy-ed’. Now as an art market professional, I find using an image of an up-coming auction lot to reinforce an initial quote rather clever. However, not everyone saw it that way, and many took this to mean he was in on the prank.

Christopher Wool, 'Fuckem', 1992, enamel on aluminium

Almost a week after the event, Sotheby’s broke the news that the piece had been re-authenticated as a new artwork, claiming that it was created ‘live at auction’. It was covered in all the arts press, as well as a few national and international titles, and social media channels were buzzing about a new Banksy piece. Claiming a world first is the PR dream, and a very clever spin to make sure Sotheby’s is positioned at the forefront of art and auction world. However, Sotheby’s are also suggesting that this is the first ever piece of performance art to sell. I would argue that the newly authenticated piece is a product of a performance, but whether you can actually call it ‘performance art’ is another story. I feel this is a step too far in the big cover-up, and almost undoes all the hard work by implying involvement.

I imagine, on top of what we could see, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes fire dousing and frantic paddling. There is no doubt that that the crisis comms team have done an exceptional job to ensure more was not made of the shortcomings of one of the most well-respected auction houses in the world. Somehow, Sotheby’s have come out of this whole debacle remarkably well, and by putting a positive spin on the new work, they even look to be the most forward thinking of the auction houses. In fact, the only major negative press was with the auction model as a whole, as the Financial Times stated that Banksy ‘Left the credibility of the art market in shreds’. There is no doubt that more needs to be done to increase transparency throughout the entire art market, and Banksy’s stunt certainly highlighted a number of near-fatal flaws. But whether this will engender any change is yet to be seen.

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