Ronn Torossian
Ronn Torossian

Gasps filled Sotheby’s auction house in London last week, and onlookers stared frozen in shock as a painting sold moments before for $1.4 million appeared to self-destruct before their eyes, shredding through its own ornate frame like office paper.

The work of art, “Girl with Balloon,” was a favorite of the anonymous street artist and prankster known as Banksy; its “self-destruct” mode just the latest in Banksy’s long history of eye-catching public relations stunts. The work depicted a small child reaching up toward a heart-shaped red balloon, originally stenciled on a wall in east London before being reproduced for the masses. It has since become one of Banksy’s best-known images.

“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” Banksy wrote on Instagram on the day of his work’s demise, a nod to Picasso. Hitting back at his critics, Banksy’s former gallerist Steve Lazarides shut down speculation that the stunt was performed in collaboration with the auction house. “I worked for him for 12 years,” he said, “the idea of him colluding with an institution to pull off a stunt is the complete antithesis to his philosophy.”

The buyer of the now-shredded work is similarly on side with Banksy. Described only as a “European collector” and “long-standing client of Sotheby’s,” the buyer will be going ahead with the purchase for the same price for which it was originally auctioned. According to the globally renowned auction house, the buyer is pleased with the outcome. “When the hammer came down last week and the work was shredded, I was at first shocked, but gradually I began to realize that I would end up with my own piece of art history.”

Provocateur Banksy has never disclosed his real identity. He began his career spray-painting buildings in Bristol, England, and has since risen to fame as one of the world’s most well-known artists. Indeed, his work is recognized the world over, with his tongue-in-cheek and mischievous tone offering up subjects like armed riot police with yellow smiley faces, policemen kissing and a chimpanzee with a sign bearing the words “Laugh now, but one day I’ll be in charge.”

Sotheby’s said the painting has now been retitled “Love is in the Bin,” and it has been authenticated by Banksy’s Pest Control agency. Alex Branczik, head of contemporary art for Europe at Sotheby’s, said the new piece is “the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction.”

Banksy may have created a piece of history for the PR world, also.

“Yet again Banksy continues to surprise and delight with his latest and arguably his finest stunt in a long history of anti-establishment statements,” said Andrew Bloch, founder of London agency Frank, “In a world where everyone is trying to be famous, Banksy’s anonymity has once again created its own invaluable buzz.”

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian is also an art collector.