In 2005, few people were willing to host Banksy’s Crude Oils show—chiefly because the guerrilla street artist wanted 200 live rats scurrying around the show. But, the London collectors Roland and Jane Cowan were unperturbed and offered Banksy the basement at 100 Westbourne Grove in west London.
When the show closed 11 days later, the couple bought Show Me the Monet (2005)—Banksy’s parody of Claude Monet’s Impressionist water lilies and the crowning piece of the exhibition—for £15,000, according to Banksy’s former agent, Steve Lazarides. Another work was gifted to the couple as part of the arrangement. The Cowans declined to comment.
Last night, Show Me the Monet sold for £6.4m (£7.6m with fees; est £3m-£5m) to a determined Asian collector who slugged it out for nine minutes with five others during a live streamed auction at Sotheby’s. The price is Banksy’s second highest at auction.
Lazarides warns whoever is taking the canvas home, it is “imbued with the stench of rats”. He says: “Banksy came to me with an idea for the show and said, ‘I want 200 live rats running around.’ So I said: ‘Okay. It might take some doing.”
The Cowans were the first people to to say yes, according to Lazarides. “The whole space was lined with galvanized steel, so the rats couldn’t chew through everything,” he says. “By the end of it the stench was unbearable.” Despite the best efforts of the local council, who tried to shut it down, the exhibition attracted throngs of people. “It was still an incredibly anarchic phase of his career, it was boiling point,” Lazarides says. “People were queuing to get in. They had to sign a waiver that said if they got bitten and got sick, it was their own responsibility.”
Show Me the Monet was last shown at Lazarides’s former gallery, Lazinc, in 2018. At the time, Lazarides estimated the painting to be worth “north of £5m”—although the work, officially at least, was not for sale.
Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, who entered the bidding at £5.7m last night, says it’s a painting “which people have been chasing for many years—the owners have had several unsolicited offers over the years, at pretty high numbers”.
Nor is it the first time Banksy has topped the bill at an evening sale at Sotheby’s. Last October, Devolved Parliament, an enormous painting from 2009 of a House of Commons chamber packed with chimpanzees, rocketed to an auction record of £8.5m (£9.9m with fees), matching the price for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Pyro (1984).
Back then, Brexit was the biggest thorn in the side of the art market—this year there is also a global pandemic and US elections to contend with. Despite this, the contemporary evening sale in London achieved £39.5m (£47.8m with fees)—on a par with the equivalent sale in 2019, but below the pre-sale £42.4m low estimate.
Six lots were withdrawn prior to the auction, denting the total by around £10m.
The earlier Parisian leg of the double bill, titled Modernités, also came in below estimate, fetching £17.7m in total (£21.5m with fees; est £19.4m-£27.4m).
Give the prevailing climate of anxiety, Branczik says he is “pleased” to have matched last year’s total: “There are a lot of factors which have not made it the easiest moment to be selling in. In light of that, I’m very satisfied with the results.”