LONDON — When Banksy’s painting “Question Time,” a satirical scene of chimps earnestly debating in the oak-paneled gloom of the British Parliament, appeared in an exhibition of the street artist’s work at the Bristol Museum in 2009, it became an instant hit. More than 300,000 visitors attended the show, some of them lining up for seven hours to get in.
Just in time for Brexit, Sotheby’s has announced the painting will be auctioned in London on Oct. 3. Banksy experts regard the work, which is 14 feet wide, as the finest Banksy painting ever to appear at auction, and Sotheby’s estimates it will sell for 1.5 million to 2 million pounds, between $1.9 million and $2.5 million. That would be a salesroom high for the artist.
But keen-eyed Banksy aficionados have noticed unmistakable differences between the painting exhibited in 2009 and the one now for sale.
Once, the parliamentary chamber was brightly lit by two large hanging lamps. The lamps have now disappeared, giving a darker tonality to the painting.
There are other changes, too. In the left foreground of the work Sotheby’s is selling, for instance, a seated chimp on the front bench holds a banana curved downward; in the 2009 version the banana is turned up. Nearby, a piece of decorative carving is a significantly different shape and size in the two versions.
Sotheby’s online catalog description said that the painting was signed and dated 2009 and was the work that had appeared in the Bristol exhibition, and that the current owner had bought it from Banksy in 2011. The description did not make any mention of the differences, though it did say the work had a new title, “Devolved Parliament.”
The auction house acknowledged the differences on Wednesday after being asked about them by The New York Times. Sotheby’s said it was the same painting, but modified by Banksy since its original showing. The auction house added that it had been aware of the changes, but did not explain why they had not been mentioned in the catalog.
“This work was first created in 2009,” Sotheby’s said in a statement. “When, that same year, it was first exhibited at the Bristol Museum, it carried the title ‘Question Time.’ Since then, the painting has been reworked by the artist and more recently retitled,” the statement said.
Certification by Pest Control, the artist’s authentication bureau, assured Sotheby’s and its clients that the painting offered for auction was the same one exhibited at the Bristol Museum in 2009, and that there were no other versions of this work, according to the statement.
But will Sotheby’s statement reassure potential buyers and their advisers?
“My clients need to be satisfied that a work is unique and that there are no other versions. It needs to be clarified,” said Acoris Andipa, a London dealer who specializes in Banksy paintings and prints.
“Ultimately this is about due diligence. If a question arises about a painting, nine times out of 10, there’s a reasonable explanation, but it still always has to be explored,” he said. He added he would only be convinced the painting was unique if he could examine the canvas himself using an ultraviolet light that would show up any reworkings.
When “Devolved Parliament” was displayed on loan in Bristol earlier this year, the museum made no mention of it being different from the painting it showed in 2009.
“This is not something that we are responding to, as we have no involvement in the matter,” said David Paull, a senior public relations officer at Bristol City Council, which oversees the museum, in an email.
Also left unexplained is why Banksy would choose to alter the painting, and, if he did, when he did it. Huw Lougher, a dealer in contemporary prints, based in Bristol, who has been collecting Banksy works since 2006, said in an interview that the two-year gap between the 2009 exhibition and its acquisition by the present owner might explain the timing.
Did Banksy perhaps believe the original image had too bright an outlook on the state of British politics? Is that why the lights are now off and the telltale banana now curves down?
And was this all part of some stunt — much like the one last October at Sotheby’s, when one of his paintings sensationally shredded itself, after selling for $1.4 million?
“Banksy is a genius at playing the game, a genius at marketing,” Mr. Lougher said. “He’s built his career around publicity.”