Okay, so you’ve seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, right? You probably laughed at those IDIOTS paying boatloads for Mr. Brainwash pieces, the ridiculousness of MBW’s operation, and the complete sheep that art-lovers can be. Because YOU ARE SMART. You don’t like MBW. And you’d never fall for something like that. Exit was safe, and that made it entertaining.
But the real world is not safe, and as it turns out, you probably aren’t safe either. How to Sell a Banksy is the unofficial Banksy movie. The film tells the relatively honest (as far as I can tell) story of Christopher Thompson’s efforts to try to sell one of Banksy’s street pieces that he ripped down off a wall in London back in 2007. The piece at the center of the film are some very poorly salvaged scraps of paper that were once a poster of Banksy’s smiling cop in Shoreditch. Thompson starts out with a pretty limited knowledge of both Banksy and the art world, but since he hope to sell his scraps of paper for tens of thousands of pounds, he sets out to learn.
At galleries like Andipa, Thompson interviews fans and experts about Banksy’s work. Moments like a young boy (probably not unlike myself at the time the piece was filmed) excited about acquiring a Banksy for just £28,000 and Acoris Andipa, the director of Andipa, suggesting that street pieces by Banksy may very well be worthless highlight the pure madness of the street art bubble just as well, if not better, than Exit Through the Gift Shop. Thompson also consults with other dealers who very much disagree with Andipa.
Thompson invests in properly restoring and framing the work, but at that point it’s still basically just scraps of paper in a frame. What he needs is authentication. He wasn’t finding any buyers who would dare to purchase a Banksy without Pest Control‘s authentication. Pest Control is Banksy’s official authentication board, and since Banksy’s work isn’t hard to fake, their word can be the difference between an artwork having a value in the range of tens of thousands of dollars and it not being worth a dime. At the end of the day, that’s what they do: Add value to work by authenticating it. But Pest Control will not authenticate street pieces. No matter how many times Thompson tries, he just cannot get Pest Control to authenticate his scraps of paper as being a “real” Banksy.
Nevertheless, Thompson goes through with a little one-night-only pop-up show above a shop in London where the only thing for sale is his Banksy. People definitely show up and there’s a bit of interest, but mostly just curiosity and a desire for free beer. He has finally learned what the world of art galleries is really about: Being seen and getting drunk for free. The night ends without any serious offers.
The film seems to end in defeat: The pieces does not have authentication from Pest Control, no auction house will consider selling it, few galleries will consider and none are successful, and even after all of Thompson’s efforts and investment in restoring and marketing the piece, it sits unsold. But of course, it’s not really a defeat, just a temporary setback. After an entire film examining the real-life absurdities of the art market, the credits include a friendly reminder that Thompson’s Banksy is still available to purchase. The entire thing is an infomercial. A bit of viral marketing. A twist of the knife in a film that film might at first appear to be a dissection of the street art world. But, if given the same opportunities as Thompson, would you have done things any differently?
How to Sell a Banksy was available for viewing online earlier this year, but is now unavailable. While one of the film’s directors tell me that it will once again be available for viewing at some point in the future, my worry is that the film’s disappearance from distribution has to do with some poor fool having finally bought those scraps of paper.
If you can find this film, I highly suggest watching. It’s the honest version of Exit Through the Gift Shop. Because it doesn’t end on a laugh, How to Sell a Banksy is more damning of street art’s commercialization and commodification than Exit ever could be, perhaps without ever intending to be. You can register online for information about future screenings and distribution of How to Sell a Banksy.
Photo courtesy of Banksy