This year may have been one to forget for most people, but for Banksy it has been 12 months in which he has continued a seemingly irrepressible rise from street artist to cultural phenomenon.
In September, after six months of uncertainty in the art market as fairs closed and sales slumped, he bucked the trend. Banksy’s impressionist pastiche Show Me the Monet sold for £7.5m at Sotheby’s – £2.5m above its most optimistic estimate – while a year earlier his piece Devolved Parliament sold for just under £9.9m.
His standing in the art market has grown in part due to an increasingly interested Asian audience, while his public profile has been maintained by trademark street pieces on houses, a hair salon and on the London Undergound.
Alex Branczik, European head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, said the demand for Banksy pieces and prints in the secondary market has never been higher with more traditional buyers hungry to add a piece to their collection.
Yet despite these successes, 2020 hasn’t all been plain sailing for Banksy. In August, a rescue boat funded by the artist was reportedly close to declaring a “state of emergency” after it set off from Spain to recover people stranded in the crossing between Libya and Italy.
The Louise Michel, which was painted bright pink and featured Banksy artwork, recovered about 200 people and eventually made its way to Palermo after sending a distress signal. It was criticised by some for its approach, while its crew said they hoped it was a wakeup call for European nations in a year when more than 500 refugees are known to have died in the Mediterranean.
Brandler said the incident at sea wasn’t surprising. “The migrant boat situation was typical in that he has the best intentions, but he doesn’t think it through,” he said.
The dealer added that Banksy’s guerrilla tactics can cause issues because his worldwide fame means the consequences of him installing a piece on someone else’s property can be costly.
The recent stencil of a woman sneezing on a wall in Bristol caused problems for the family who owned the property as they were in the middle of selling the house. Tabloid coverage said the house price rocketed to £5m, and the family were criticised after temporarily pausing the sale. They later confirmed the sale was going ahead as planned.
Brandler said: “Because it’s left on their wall, they have all the responsibility and costs of maintaining it and protecting it, but they can’t do anything with it. So they get all the negatives without the positive.”
As well as the problems at sea there were setbacks in court, with a European trademark ruling going against the artist. Banksy lost a long-running dispute with a greetings card company, which argued it should be able to use an image of his Flower Thrower stencil mural because of the artist’s anonymity.
In 2014, Banksy’s representatives, Pest Control Office, successfully applied for an EU trademark of the Flower Thrower and he set up a shop in Croydon in order to help support his case. But in September that was overturned after a two-year dispute.
An EU panel said they found “his intention was not to use the mark as a trademark to commercialise goods … but only to circumnavigate the law. These actions are inconsistent with honest practices.”
A trademark lawyer, who represented the card company, said as a result of the ruling “all of Banksy’s trademarks are at risk as all of the portfolio has the same issue”.
So could that potentially sour 2021 for Banksy? Brandler doesn’t think so and said people should expect more big market prices and unpredictable activism rather than a retreat.
“If a signed print of Love Is in the Air can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, there’s no limit,” he said. “That’s more expensive than a Picasso or a Rembrandt.”
Branczik, meanwhile, is taking a more pragmatic approach. “I’ve learned never to be surprised by Banksy,” he said.