During Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sale last year Banksy’s ‘Girl with Balloon’ shredded through the bottom of the frame as it was sold. Picture: JACK TAYLOR/GETTY IMAGES
During Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sale last year Banksy’s ‘Girl with Balloon’ shredded through the bottom of the frame as it was sold. Picture: JACK TAYLOR/GETTY IMAGES

When Banksy’s Girl with Balloon self-destructed minutes after being sold at Sotheby’s for more than £1m in October 2018, the art world was stunned as much as the general public.

Beside the actual shredder performance, which some have joked made this artwork the second most famous to the Mona Lisa, the fact that the controversial British artist’s work could fetch this kind of price was a surprise to many.

How did it happen that graffiti, a historically subversive and often illegal creative practice, became an established and highly collectible art form? How did it build significant value?

Street art is a fairly recent movement in art history. Its roots can be found in Wildstyle graffiti, a genre that flourished in the 70s and 80s in Philadelphia and New York, and in Pop Art, which also concerned itself with popular and mass culture. The Moco museum in Amsterdam is devoted to subversive art and is running a Banksy exhibition. Its permanent collections celebrate “The Moco Masters” with pieces by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat among others. These names lend excellent pedigree.

In 2008 Shepard Fairey’s famous Hope poster for the Obama campaign constituted a landmark moment for street art, which got catapulted into the mainstream. It was followed by the groundbreaking 2011 show Art in the Streets, a review of the genre at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) in LA.

Of huge significance is what took place in September 2017, days before the first large-scale Basquiat show opened at the Barbican in London. Two new Banksys appeared on the street around the exhibition centre, the most famous of which represented an iconic Basquiat figure being frisked by two policemen.

Visitors of the Moco Museum at the ‘Laugh Now’ exhibition - a collection of some of Banksy’s iconic works. Picture: MOCO MUSEUM
Visitors of the Moco Museum at the ‘Laugh Now’ exhibition - a collection of some of Banksy’s iconic works. Picture: MOCO MUSEUM

The Barbican has normally a zero-tolerance policy towards graffiti. However, board members went into a panic when they realised that the murals would soon be cleaned off, effectively destroying what the deputy chair described as “half a million pounds of artwork”.

Instead, and in what constituted a complete turnaround, the Barbican negotiated with the city of London and the murals were preserved with a protective sheet of Perspex bolted into the wall directly on the street. While raising obvious questions of ownership, the call to care for the pieces somehow irrevocably established street art.

Street artists have long figured out ways to monetise their art and produce pieces that are collectible. These can be unique works, numbered prints, as well as limited-edition objects such as skateboard decks, toys, caps and T-shirts.

Some of these works trade at the top of the secondary market. British auction house Bonhams held its first dedicated urban art sale in 2008. A handful of names stand out including Banksy, Stik, Invader, KAWS and Fairey. Today the average lot value of Banksy’s artworks is almost $40,000. Earlier this year a painting by KAWS sold for about $14.7m at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. These figures reflect a radical shift from the days when street art was understood as mere acts of vandalism.

A number of street artists have broken into the major gallery circuit too. The Brazilian twins OSGEMEOS are represented by Lehmann Maupin in New York, while the French artist JR is signed by mega gallerist Perrotin. Asked about the thrills of moving from the street to the gallery space, veteran Wildstyle artist Lee Quiñones answered: “It’s there forever as opposed to the streets, where it’s ephemeral.”

‘Long Way Home’ by Os Gemeos at the Moco Museum. Picture: MOCO MUSEUM
‘Long Way Home’ by Os Gemeos at the Moco Museum. Picture: MOCO MUSEUM

The collector of street art has plenty of options and should be guided by a number of considerations. Unique works are more valuable and so are signed pieces. With numbered prints, the smaller the edition the higher the value, while prints with details added by hand carry more value too.

Unique works come in various formats and mediums. They can be sculpture or wall pieces, and made of spray paint, acrylic, canvas, cardboard, resin or steel. The Moco museum calls these “indoor” works. In 2012, SA street artist Faith 47 had a solo show of such indoor pieces at David Krut in Johannesburg.

Street artists often have a recognisable theme that they translate into more portable formats. The six lines and two dots figure can be instantly attributed to Stik. Invader got his name for reproducing in mosaic the space invaders from the popular 80s arcade game.

Questions of authenticity constitute one of the biggest challenges facing collectors. Street art can be duplicated easily and stencils can be reused forever. It is always important to consult with an expert to avoid potentially costly mistakes.

To curb forgery, a number of artists have set up bodies that deal exclusively with authenticating artworks. There is Banksy’s aptly named Pest Control and Stik’s Squarity. Ideally, collectors should only acquire pieces accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.

Most artists refuse to issue certificates for artworks that have been removed from buildings for conservation or trading purposes. Street artists generally insist on the distinction between art made for the street — that belongs to the street — and art made for the art market.

Is a mural produced for the streets as valuable when it is displayed in someone’s home then? Probably not. Another question is perhaps about the skills required to produce monumental street pieces. Do these skills always translate into more intimate and portable formats?

In the end, the collector of street art faces a number of challenges that are directly linked to the fact that this art form was initially meant for the street and is getting domesticated into the home.