Bought for $100, this Banksy could sell for $650,000

Elizabeth Fortescue, Australian Financial Review, 20 April 2023

Standing in front of a Banksy screenprint that he estimates will hammer for $450,000 to $650,000 next month, Deutscher and Hackett auctioneers’ senior art specialist Henry Mulholland does not look as happy as he should. Surely it’s a thrill to offer a mint condition, signed and editioned Girl with Balloon, one of the British street artist’s most famous images?

It’s exciting that the Sydney vendor snapped up Girl with Balloon for about $100 in December 2004 from Santa’s Ghetto. This pop-up art store in London and Bethlehem was where Banksy sold some of his work from 2002 to 2007.

Mr Mulholland has found recent interest in Banksy to be “disappointing”. Post-sale phone calls from Banksy fans who hadn’t actually bid at the auction, only to swoop once a work had been passed in under the hammer, have been annoying.

In the end, it was an A4 envelope accompanying Girl with Balloon that convinced Mr Mulholland and his boss Damian Hackett to accept the work with pleasure.

The envelope contained what looked like half a ten pound note with Lady Diana’s image replacing that of Queen Elizabeth II’s. The “bank note” was stapled to a certificate from Pest Control Office, Banksy’s authentication bureau.

Known as “Di-faced tenners” (a play on “defaced tenners”), these counterfeit notes made by Banksy are used by Pest Control Office as an authentication tool to prevent confusion, fraud and misattribution.

Pest Control Office staples one half of a Di-faced tenner to each certificate of authenticity accompanying a Banksy work, and keeps the other half on its database. The same sequence of numbers is written on each half of the bill. If a bill ever turns up with numbers that don’t match the database, Pest Control Office knows it is probably dealing with a fake.

Another of Mr Mulholland’s frustrations is that it can take quite a long time to get authentication from Pest Control Office, if a work doesn’t come with it. So when Girl with Balloon came with its paperwork complete, “it was just too valuable to allow my frustration with Banksy folk to get in the way”.

Girl with Balloon, measuring 65.5 cm x 50 cm, number 71 in an edition of 150, is now among 91 lots in Deutscher and Hackett’s Important Australian and International Fine Art auction to be held in Melbourne on May 3. The auction house will be hoping the notoriety of another version of Girl with Balloon, which infamously was shredded after being auctioned in 2018 and later sold as Love is in the Bin for $US25.4 million ($37.2 million), will add competitive tension when the bidding opens.

The auction will sell between $6.4 million and $8.6 million worth of art, if the lower and upper estimates prove accurate. Buyers must pay a buyer’s premium of 25 per cent on top of hammer prices.

One work that could smash its estimate of $280,000 to $360,000 is The Bath, 1996, by John Olsen, for whom tributes have poured in since his death on April 11.

Dr Deborah Hart, head curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia, once wrote that The Bath was “one of Olsen’s most memorable works”. At time of painting, Olsen was spending a lot of time in that very bath, when he was living in Rydal, near Bathurst, NSW. This was because he had just had a major knee operation. Olsen himself wrote in 1996: “The Bath might be my best since Donde Voy”. Damian Hackett called The Bath “a real slow release picture”.

“A picture this important could do double what we’ve said, whether the artist’s living or not,” Mr Hackett said.

Three other Olsens are in the D+H lineup. Smith & Singer’s auction on May 2 has two more Olsens. Together, the auctions will be a litmus test for the great artist’s posthumous market.

Making its auction debut with Deutscher and Hackett is Russell Drysdale’s Children Dancing, 1950, which carries the highest estimate in the auction of $1.3 million to $1.6 million.