A Banksy painting left in a foyer at Southampton General Hospital at the start of the COVID19 crisis has sold at Christie’s for £16.8m, a record for the artist at auction. All proceeds will now go to the NHS. The painting titled ‘Game Changer’ depicts a young boy playing with a doll dressed as a nurse, abandoning his superhero dolls which remain in the toybox. Christie’s said, “the price paid for the 1m (3ft) x 1m work was a “world auction record” for a Banksy. Christie’s said it would also be donating a “significant portion” of the buyer’s premium to NHS charities.
The mural first appeared on 6 May 2020, during the first wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The artwork was a gift to the hospital who have decided to take it to auction, as was always the artist’s intention. A reproduction will remain on view for future patients, visitors and staff at the hospital. Titled Game Changer, the original was sold with proceeds benefitting the NHS. Appearing at a time when countries across the world applauded their frontline workers from their doorsteps during the first global lockdown, and painted rainbows in support, Game Changer spoke directly to the international zeitgeist. Until now, the work had only been seen in person by frontline medical staff and those admitted to hospital for treatment: The auction marked Game Changer’s first appearance outside of the hospital. The work was only visible to passers-by from the Duke Street Gallery window at Christie’s Headquarters in London in March 2021.
Game Changer, which is hand-painted, shows a young boy clutching a new idol. A masked nurse dressed in the international uniform of the Red Cross soars to the rescue, her cape fluttering and arm outstretched towards the sky. When first unveiled, the picture was accompanied by a note: ‘Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.’
Katharine Arnold, Co-Head, Post-War and Contemporary Art, Europe: “Game Changer is a universal tribute to all those fighting worldwide on the frontline of this crisis. At a time when we can dare to hope once more, and look at life beyond the pandemic, it is important to reflect on the many symbols of strength and hope we have seen internationally since the beginning of 2020. Banksy’s Game Changer was a beacon of light for the staff and patients at Southampton General Hospital and it was the artist’s wish to then auction it with proceeds benefitting the NHS. The work pays tribute to the strength and resilience of those who have demonstrated true leadership throughout the pandemic, the staff of our vital NHS, the nation’s true heroes. At the same time, our young protagonist engaged in the simple pleasure of playing with his action figures, captures the other side of this pandemic, the focus on family, friends and loved ones. It is an honour to present the work at auction and to do our best at Christie’s to realise the artist’s vision for the work.”
Charged with the expressive detail of a children’s book illustration, it is an image of quiet poignancy. The composition is monochrome, save for the red cross that glows from the nurse’s uniform. It captures a moment of unstudied innocence, registering the play of light and shadow across the boy’s face, hair and clothes. He appears to look towards a brighter dawn, safe in the knowledge that real superheroes do walk among us.
In a time of rapid and unsteady change, Game Changer ultimately offers an image of hope. Irreverence, parody and calls to arms are absent: instead, it represents a personal tribute to those who continue to turn the tide of the pandemic. Its style is one of nostalgic purity, yet its message looks firmly towards the future. As an artwork, however, it will remain forever a symbol of its time: a reminder of the world’s real game changers, and of the vital work they perform.