The Real Fake

(Photo: Kenneth Lyngaas)

(Photo: Kenneth Lyngaas)

Last week, we described how the famed U.K. street artist Banksy had set up a stand in New York’s Central Park selling real Banksy pieces – stenciled figures spray-painted on canvas – for $60. The art was worth a lot more than that, yet almost no one bought any. We asked how that could be – and got a lot of great reader responses in the comments. Thanks!

It turns out that there’s a second part to this story. One week after Banksy tried and failed to sell his art, a bunch of unrelated artists set up a stand selling fake Banksys for $60. The pieces were exact replicas of the ones Banksy had tried to sell in his stand.  But this time the artists told shoppers very clearly that the pieces were fake. And yet they sold out their stock in an hour.

All of this brings up some really interesting questions about the market for art. When people buy art, what exactly are they buying? People strolling through Central Park might have thought that Banksy’s real art was fake – for anyone in the know, the $60 price (real Banksys sell for many thousands) and the setting (a stand in Central Park) sent that signal. Others may have simply thought they were cheap stencils, overpriced at $60. And so the pieces went unsold, even though they look exactly like the Banksy pieces for which people gladly pay many thousands – because they actually are those Banksy pieces.  Ok, but then why were people willing to buy the fakes? We think that people were buying the fake Banksys as art. Wait . . . what? Well, Banksy’s experiment got a lot of press in New York, and so when people encountered the fake Banksys they understood them as part of a narrative that Banksy had constructed about how what we identify as “art” – e.g., the Banksy hanging in the swanky New York or London gallery – is really just about hype. The same Banksy piece displayed on a stand in Central Park and priced at $60 is no longer “art.” It’s a fake. It’s junk for the tourists.

The artists selling the fake Banksys were responding to this narrative. “Look,” they said, “these are fake!” Which, in a sense, made them authentic. And valuable, in two ways. First, as honest and well-executed replicas of art for which people will (in the right context) pay a lot. Second, and more importantly, as part of Banksy’s conceptual art project about the meaning of art. The fake Banksys were not actually spray-painted by Banksy. But, in a sense they were created by him. So are they “Banksys?”


First of all, I'm not 100% certain that Banksy had nothing at all to do with the second sale. It sounds exactly like something that he would pull. In any case, it shouldn't matter anyway. When you're talking about concept art, isn't it the concept that matters?


I see it more as human behavior of not wanting to get conned. In the first situation, the real art selling at "fake" prices creates a situation where a buyer is taking a perceived risk of buying a fake and having one pulled over on them. In the second situation, the sellers are explicitly saying they are fakes so there is no risk to the buyer. It's just a decision of value. From my experience, people don't like getting conned whether it's for $5 or $5000 dollars hence the slow sales of the first situation.


"as honest and well-executed replicas of art for which people will (in the right context) pay a lot."

After having watched White Collar on USA Network and seen the show do some really good fakes, I have wondered why someone who loves a piece of art (Magritte's Son of Man for myself and Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte for my wife) couldn't go to some artist or art class and commission a replica of the desired piece for a large fee but nowhere near the actual "value" of the original art in question. I have never heard of this being done but frequently hear of art forgery in the news. A really good replica can be as enjoyable or close to as enjoyable as the real thing for a much lower price. As long as we're honest about it being a replica, who would be harmed?

Paul Rain

Alternative explanation- people who buy 'art' by 'Banksy' are iiiiinsane.


I know next to nothing about art, or the specialized markets involved. However, the two different contexts described in the Banksy and fake-Banksy-as-art markets reminds me of something I read once in the study of economics. Is anyone else reminded of Akerlof's "The Market for 'Lemons'?"

In the first market, doubts of authenticity could have crept into a buyer's mind due to the conflicting information of the claim versus the price and location. Would these doubts not introduce asymmetrical information into the equation?

Akerlof suggests at least two possible outcomes. If the first story were the whole story, Akerlof would be correct in that the presence (or suspected presence) of lemons (fake art) led to "a sequence of events where no market exists at all."

Considering the second story, Akerlof is also correct in that the presence of fake art drives authentic art out of the market, and only fakes are traded.


Trevor R.

At a shop in Galena, Illinois, there was a newly made clay pot with a price of $800. There were many pots of this nature in the shop. I ask the proprietor, "What makes this pot worth $800?" She waxed on about local craftsmen & artists and the use of the local Galena leaded clay which imbues the color variation in the pots". I responded, "It's still just a clay pot." She frowned and left me alone. Thanks to your article I now understand that I didn't find the narrative to be worth the cost".

My daughter made me a pinch-pot in her elementary school art class. She personally picked the colors and hand-crafted the unique organic shape. To me, it's priceless... But I'll let you have it for $1,500.00.


I can't help but wonder just how obviously fake the fakes were. Since the Banksy incident had gotten a lot of publicity, could many of the buyers be planning to display the "fake" as a real one they'd bought from the first stand? Thus demonstrating their superior perception & taste...

There's also another interesting question here: when the "art" is a spray painting done with a stencil, isn't the actual "art" the stencil, and the painting (which could be repeated many times) merely a cheap copy?


I love that idea. Bansky could use a stencil to lay down a bunch of graffiti and then display the stencil in a gallery. He could call it "geographically disjointed composition", "process as product", or something along those lines and the critics will lap it up.


Banksy did display a stencil or two in his room at the Art In The Streets show in Los Angeles.


Reminiscent of the experiment run by the Washington Post, where they had violin virtuoso Joshua Bell perform in a DC Metro station on his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin. Three days earlier he'd performed at Symphony Hall, where decent seats were $100. People who encountered Bell in the metro, however, walked by with hardly a second glance.


It is all about the appropriate context. True art aficionados don't go shopping in a park. They go to the galleries. Customers looking for knockoffs would not shop in the galleries, they would respond to a deal in the park. It's hardly a surprising finding really!


When the fakes were sold, they were sold as 'Fake Banksy' art; when real Banksy sold his art, his sign called it 'spray art'. I propose that Banksy has become more famous as an icon than his art work and therefore people bought the fake art based on his notoriety.


But the only reason a "Banksy" has worth is that he has been made into an icon by the "art" world. That's all that differentiates his work from gang tagging. Absent this process, a Banksy has about as much chance of being considered art as the Emperor's New Clothes have of keeping him warm on a frosty night.


Just saw these "real fakes" on ebay.
Seems to be a version on the theme...

steve cebalt

Even if I were ultra-wealthy, I'd never buy expensive art -- cheap copies only. Nor would I pay more than $30K for a car. I'd feel like a douche.


But buying art is a very good investment. Check auction prices for some van Gogh in the last 20-30 years only. It's a bit like Ponzi scheme with never-ending supply of new entrants.
I am not saying that art is 'worthless', but art is not appreciated for its intangible value. It is perceived as a very convenient investment fund for very wealthy.

Caron Santos

Oh my God. Buying art is indeed a Ponzi scheme. That's the almost perfect description. We need to go deeper. Maybe it's part Ponzi scheme, part Lottery, since some arts worth nothing after purchase and some keep pricing up for decades.