Because my parents bought and sold antiques as a hobby, I’m a big fan of the History Channel series “Pawn Stars.” Our family was nothing like the endlessly bickering Harrisons on the show, but I never get tired of seeing the quirky items that find their way into the Las Vegas pawn shop. The lively negotiations always take me back to my days helping Mom and Dad run their booth at a show in Atlanta, where learning to bargain with customers shaped me into the shrewd operator you know and love today.
In case you don’t watch the series — now in its 15th season — the family dynamics among the Pawn Stars often upstage the history lessons when vintage gems are brought in for sale. Until his death this past summer, the patriarch was Richard “The Old Man” Harrison, a cranky ex-Navy officer who opened the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop with his son Rick in 1989.
A lovable grump who put the mud in “curmudgeon,” the tank in “cantankerous” and the surly in “miserly,” Harrison had been called “The Old Man” since he was 38. He was a cagy negotiator who drove classic cars, came in early to work and trash-talked his family and staff. Much of the abuse was aimed at shop employee, Chumlee Russell, a breezy millennial whose clueless antics and laid-back approach to work made him an easy target.
On an episode from 2013, a man brings a Banksy Bill into the pawn shop, demanding $1,000 for what is clearly a counterfeit British 10-pound note. For all his supposed ignorance of history and antiques, Chumlee is hip to certain contemporary collectibles, and immediately recognizes the work of Banksy, the famously anonymous street artist.
Yes, I am aware that the phrase “famously anonymous” is an oxymoron. It is part of the high literary art that readers have come to expect from this column.
Banksy created these bills in 2004 and paid someone to throw a wad of them into the crowd during a London street carnival, and now they are sought after by collectors. It is priceless watching Chumlee trying to convince The Old Man to spend real money on fake money. Only after a local art expert authenticates the forgery is the shop willing to pay up.
I had never heard of Banksy before seeing this episode. It turns out that he’s been spray-painting protest graffiti all over the world for more than two decades. A satirist who loves sticking his artistic thumb in the eye of the establishment, Banksy usually does the unexpected.
Yes, I am aware that it is a contradiction to say that one “usually does the unexpected.” Please don’t interrupt me anymore. I’m on a roll.
Banksy once climbed into the penguin cage at the London Zoo and spray-painted “We’re bored of fish” on the wall. He once held a gallery exhibition of his work, with 200 live rats running around the floor. He even wallpapered a live elephant. If Salvador Dali were alive today, he’d be rolling in his grave with envy.
OK, I stole that one from Yogi Berra.
Even if you didn’t know the name Banksy, you’ve probably seen the viral video from a few weeks ago when a piece of his artwork sold at Sotheby’s in London for $1.4 million. Seconds after the gavel came down on his iconic “Girl with Balloon,” something surreal happened. An alarm beeped, and the stencil print slowly started to drop, passing through a shredder that the artist had secretly installed in the frame.
Auction goers were stunned. What once was a multi-million-dollar artwork now looked like the world’s most expensive party streamers. A few days later, the artist himself released a statement to gloat over his practical joke, one that exposed the pretensions of both art sellers and art buyers. Of course, the jury is still out on whether the stunt decreased or increased the print’s value. Some have even charged Sotheby’s with colluding with the artist to pull off the caper. The auctioneer denies the claim, and Robert Mueller may look into it.
Meanwhile, the buyer is going through with the purchase and feels the print is worth double what she paid, since it is now both an original piece and a tangible moment of performance art. Which means that someone will soon be tempted to forge a shredded Banksy. I wonder: would such a work be called a rip-off? Will the artist’s reputation be in tatters? If you tried to prove the fraud, would there be a shred of evidence?
Don’t bother. I’ll show myself out.