When a Fake Banksy Is a Real Banksy

(Photo: Tim Fuller)

(Photo: Tim Fuller)

Many news outlets this week carried the story that Banksy, the celebrated British street artist, had set up an innocuous-looking booth near Central Park that offered original signed works for $60 each—despite their value being much closer to $60,000 apiece.  Even with this astounding discount, only a handful were sold—as this video, posted on Banksy’s website, shows:

What’s interesting to us is what this says about art and the role of copies. While copying is a huge concern in many art forms—especially music and film—in fine art, it is comparatively insignificant. In China, there are whole villages full of artisans devoted to copying the great masters of Western art, and certainly fakes and frauds are well known in the West as well. Yet there is not a thriving black market in Banksy knockoffs—or, for that matter, in the work of other major contemporary artists.  Why is that?

One might argue that original art somehow has a special quality because a brilliant artist made it with his or her hands. But since a lot of art is not really produced by the artist directly, but instead by assistants working on his or her guidance, it would seem that a very close copy of a valuable and aesthetically-interesting work should be almost as desirable as the real thing. (And we will put aside for the moment video and sound art, which, being digital, are perfectly suited to copying.) If one is simply buying art as an investment, provenance is clearly critical—and perhaps that is what drives a lot of the high-end art market. But for those who buy art for art’s sake (let’s assume those people exist), it is much less clear why it matters if the work is an original or a (very close) copy. This is especially true when originals can cost millions and copies a miniscule fraction.

In the case of Banksy’s booth, much of the media commentary presumed that the works were ignored by passersby because they were assumed to be fakes. Yet this only begs the question of why fakes are not desirable, given that very few of the people who walked by the booth—if any—could ever afford or would ever pay for the real thing. If you love Banksy’s work and style, $60 seems like an attractive price to pay for a well-executed fake.

One last point. An interesting thing about this story that hasn’t been addressed as much in the media commentary is that Walmart sells Bansky prints. And as you might expect from Walmart, the prices are very low. They can be had for even less than at the celebrated Banksy booth:  $57.99.

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  1. jamie says:

    Your walmart link shows a $387 banksy print.

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  2. James says:

    I think part of the problem for people walking by, is that if they know who Banksy is, and want a copy of his work, there are more convenient ways to purchase it than on a street corner in NYC where you now need to figure out how to get it home (subway, taxi, walk, etc.). You could buy a similar “copy” for a similar price from the comfort of your home on ebay or walmart and have it shipped right to your house.

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  3. Kazzy says:

    If anything, this just shows the irrationality of the fine art market.

    If people won’t buy Banksy prints at $60, guess what? They’re worth less than that, not 1000 times that.

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    • Shane L says:

      Exactly what I was thinking, Kazzy. There was a video going around some time ago of violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, dressed in baseball cap and t-shirt, busking. He earned $32 from the thousand people who passed by. People sharing this video on Facebook were blaming the crowd for not appreciating great music, pointing out that a ticket to his performances would be expensive.

      Perhaps the real message is that people who buy tickets to his music don’t do it because they love music, they do it to signal wealth or taste. Maybe the true value of his music is the $32 he managed to pick up from busking in front of over 1,000 people.

      Well I’m being mean! I suppose Bell has earned the respect usually afforded him, and I do enjoy Banksy’s imagination. Perhaps, though, Banksy’s success has hit a positive feedback loop (accumulative advantage) where people value his work higher simply because of his celebrity. When his work is sold, minus the association with his celebrity, it reverts to a lower value in the eyes of consumers.

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      • Kevin says:

        “Perhaps the real message is that people who buy tickets to his music don’t do it because they love music [...]”

        Or, perhaps, the real message is exactly the opposite: you buy a ticket to a musical performance to hear the performance at a time that is more convenient and in a setting that is more conducive to listening enjoyment, than you get on a street corner, or crowded train station platform, etc.

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  4. James says:

    What matters to the vast majority of art collectors (if not all of them) is not the art itself, but the ego gratification/acceptance into the inner circle of “art” collectors. A work without provenance is worthless, because it does not show that you could afford to spend a large sum of money to obtain it. I, lacking the cachet of being a recognized “artist”, would have trouble giving my unmade bed or old fishing trophy away for free on Craigslist. Other individuals, having been made part of the inner circle of the (con) art world, have sold things nearly identical for millions, to those who want to be accepted into that world, or who cynically prey on those who do.

    Then too, we might ask about the percentage of passers-by who would even recognize the name, or the art, outside of the context of a gallery. After all, what exactly is the difference between this Banksy, and many another sidewalk artist? That Banksy’s output gets into galleries, and is sold for large sums, no? So if it’s not in a gallery with a big price tag on it, it can’t possibly be a genuine Banksy, now can it?

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  5. Scott Grimmer (MileValue) says:

    Great post, but I think the presumption that no one bought because they thought the works were fake is silly. Few people bought because few people value that art at over $60. If you couldn’t sell the work, and you couldn’t brag to your friends that a work was a Banksy, what would you pay for those little works? I bet most people would say zero or under $20.

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  6. MedusaOblongata says:

    Most likely, none of the people walking by knew who Bansky is. If this experiment had been done at an art gallery, and had been advertized beforehand to the art community, there might have been a lot more buyers. Even if the market for art is large, it is still a very small percentage of the general population. Likewise, if a table was set up on a corner selling Sebenzas for $50, not many would sell, whereas, it it were advertised properly, you could sell thousands at that price (assuming they were real, of course ).

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  7. OTOMI says:

    I buy art directly from artists because I want them to make a living of their art.

    The problem start when fakes are sold as originals which has happened with Banksy prints a lot and police got involved.

    I do think the allure is that an artist or his studio did the work and not some guy (or Walmart) trying to make a quick buck on the back of the artist.

    I think it is also safe to say that the early images by Banksy (straight up B/W stencils) probably don’t appeal to the average bypasser.

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  8. uthor says:

    Techincially, that “Walmart” print is being sold through Walmart by a third party.

    I would think that one reason Banksy copies are less popular because he does graffitti art and the environment is as important as the design itself.

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    • steve cebalt says:

      Posts and comments like this thread are why I love this blog! Fascinating. My thought, simply put:

      A high price is often the reason people buy something that is subjective in nature. A high price is a value proposition in and of itself. In my small business, I used to compete on price — offering more for less. All I got was bottom feeders and headaches. Once when I was fully booked and had no time for new clients, I jacked up my prices to WAY over the top end of the market — and I was amazed that MORE people wanted my services — the very same services I’d been selling at bargain-basement prices. My new price was ridiculously high. Which made people want it. It made them curious — “why are his fees so high?” And it made them value my services more, simply because they PAID more. But it doesn’t always work that way, and pricing is as irrational as human nature.

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      • James says:

        Yeah, it’s just another version of the cheap wine in expensive bottle trick. The great majority of those willing and able to pay exorbitant prices for a label either can’t tell the difference in a blind test, or actually prefer the cheap stuff.

        Apropos of which, check out the price of an empty Pappy van Winkle bourbon bottle.

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