Banksy depicting British politicians as apes sold for record $12.2 million

"Devolved Parliament" became the artist's most expensive work to date.

October 3, 2019, 3:14 PM

LONDON -- A painting depicting British politicians as monkeys has become the most expensive artwork to date by street artist Banksy, as it was sold for 9.9 million pounds ($12.2 million) at the London auction house Sotheby’s.

The sale of "Devolved Parliament" smashed the artist's previous sale record by a huge margin, surpassing the work "Keep it Spotless," which was sold for $1.8 million in Sotheby’s New York in 2008. The oil-on-canvas painting, which stands at 13 feet, was only estimated to be worth between $1.8 million and $2.5 million before the sale.

On an otherwise routine evening at Sotheby's, at the mention of Banksy's painting a flurry of offers were made to reach the artist's record sum, with the auctioneer commenting that "history was being made" as the bids flooded in. The final sale was met with rapturous applause from the audience as a series of late bids increased the price.

The painting was sold at auction almost exactly a year after one of his most famous works, "Girl with Balloon," made headlines around the world when it self-destructed in front of aghast onlookers at the same auction house.

That work, which was sold for $1.4 million, self-destructed via a shredder hidden in the artwork's frame in October 2018, and was subsequently renamed "Love in the Bin."

While at first glance the work may appear to be satirising the current chaos engulfing U.K. politics as the country grapples with leaving the European Union, it was originally painted in 2009, a full seven years before the historic Brexit referendum. Since then, the country has gone through three general elections, the Scottish Independence and Brexit referendums, and four prime ministers.

"Devolved Parliament" was previously on display at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery on March 29, the original day the U.K. was meant to leave the EU, before the deadline was pushed back to the current scheduled leave date of Oct. 31.

When the painting went on display in Bristol, Banksy commented in an Instagram post: "I made this ten years ago. Bristol museum have just put it back on display to mark Brexit day. ‘Laugh now, but one day no-one will be in charge.’"

Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s European head of contemporary art, said that the work was even more relevant considering the country’s political situation.

"Banksy is a modern-day Voltaire, confronting the burning issues of the day with caustic wit and biting satire, but with a lightness of touch and a visual irony that distills society’s most complicated political situations into just one, deceptively simple image that is readily shareable in our social media age," he said. "Regardless of where you sit in the Brexit debate, there’s no doubt that this work is more pertinent now than it has ever been, capturing unprecedented levels of political chaos and confirming Banksy as the satirical polemicist of our time."

Banksy, whose true identity remains unknown despite decades of speculation, has become an internationally recognized artist thanks to his ironic depictions of modern life. The majority of his work is graffiti-based, with the streets of his hometown of Bristol in the U.K. claiming home to many of his best-known works.