Nothing seemed unusual at an October 5 art auction at Sotheby’s in London, England. Then the unthinkable happened. A work by Banksy—a famous British street artist whose identity is a mystery—had just been sold to an anonymous buyer for nearly $1.4 million. Moments later, the painting began to slip through its ornate frame, the bottom half shredding into strips. Onlookers gasped.
“It appears we just got Banksy-ed,” Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s head of contemporary art in Europe, said at a news conference. “I’ll be quite honest: We have not experienced this situation in the past, where a painting is spontaneously shredded.”
The spray paint–and-acrylic canvas, Girl with Balloon (pictured), was a 2006 version of one of Banksy’s most iconic works. The artist originally spray-painted the image on a London wall in 2002.
Banksy isn’t new to pulling pranks. In fact, his work is known for taking the world by surprise. In the dark of night, he transforms ordinary urban walls into spray-painted masterpieces. The artist’s graffitied images deliver hard-hitting political commentary. They have appeared all over the world.
Although Banksy’s identity is unknown to the public, it’s certain that he was behind the stunt. After the auction, he posted a picture of the shredded canvas on Instagram, with the caption “Going, going, gone . . .” He also posted a video that partially explains how the prank was pulled off. “A few years ago, I secretly built a shredder into a painting in case it was ever put up for auction,” a caption in the video says. Banksy didn’t explain how the shredder was activated.
Some art experts think it could be worth even more in its shredded state. Joey Syer cofounded a website that buys and sells art, including many of Banksy’s works. He told the Evening Standard that he thinks the partly shredded Girl with Balloon could now be worth 50% more than it was just sold for.
Pierre Koukjian is a Geneva, Switzerland–based artist who witnessed the stunt unfold. He calls the new owner of the piece “very lucky,” reports the Associated Press. “What [Banksy] did is really shocking, in a good way,” Koukjian says. “I think it will be historic, and people will talk for a long time about it.”