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19 June 2024

The Stormtrooper Scandal: a parable for our times

The BBC’s cautionary tale of greed and lies in the art world is full of bullshitters and rank opportunists.

By Rachel Cooke

As the election campaign grows ever madder, I really should be offering respite in the form of a box set into which you can escape for a few hours. But there is no escape! Cowed by politics and the Euros, the schedulers are not obliging, and the BBC documentary I watched on your behalf in the absence of any comedy or drama turned out to be peopled with the kind of bullshitters and rank opportunists beside whom Nigel Farage might seem almost plausible. I mean, say what you like about the new leader of Reform, at least he doesn’t wear Lycra leggings over his face whenever he appears in public. Though after a few too many Rothmans of a Friday night he probably does sound – as the pseudonymous blokes with disguised voices in this film all do – like Chewbacca the Wookie.

The Stormtrooper Scandal devotes an amazing 90 minutes to the exploits of Ben Moore, an art curator who in 2021 became an overnight millionaire after arranging a huge online sale of digital art NFTs. In case you don’t know, NFT stands for non-fungible token, which is a unique digital identifier (like a watermark) that can be used to certify ownership and authenticity, and back then the market for them – usually bought and sold in cryptocurrency – was at its peak. Moore, who’d been on the art scene since the 1990s, had long toured a show called Art Wars, in which well-known artists were invited to customise, for charity, the helmets worn by Imperial Stormtroopers in Star Wars. But now he’d had enough of do-gooding: he wanted to make some money. This time he would sell NFTs of the Stormtrooper helmets, some of them designed by famous artists such as Jake Chapman and Damien Hirst.

The only trouble was that he hadn’t asked the artists’ permission first, and also that lots, if not most, of the NFTs were not created by big names, but mass-produced in Bosnia. Collectors, frenzied at the thought of owning one, shelled out a fortune when the sale went live, and in the days immediately afterwards, trading was crazy (Moore got a share of every transaction). But then… ppfflump. Uh oh. Some artists, very cross indeed, insisted work with their name attached to it be withdrawn from the sale; meanwhile, lawyers from Lucasfilm, owner of the Star Wars franchise, came calling, too. More amusingly, many buyers now discovered the “work” they’d bought was a bit rubbish (the sale was run as a very expensive lucky dip). Basically, these guys (they’re all guys, natch) had hoped to bag the equivalent of a rare football sticker by Panini – a pristine Cristiano Ronaldo Sporting Lisbon rookie, say, like the one that recently sold at auction for £14,151.24 – only to find out that they’d all got the same version of Elsa from Frozen (yours for 80p).

Obviously, it was very naughty of Moore to do all this, and no wonder he’s now broke, legal fees blanketing his desk like snow. But oh, it’s hard not to laugh. Moore – a floppy-haired guy who once dressed in a pink Stormtrooper costume and then performed a public strip tease where his final move, having peeled off the relevant bit of plastic, was to flash a moony at the Palace of Westminster – does strike me as likely to be a “public school chancer”. I hardly need the artist known as Chemical X to point it out (like Banksy, Chemical X doesn’t reveal his identity; unlike Banksy, however, he has no wit and no obvious artistic talent, his practice being essentially to cover every available surface with ecstasy tablets). It’s also pretty funny watching a man such as Jake Chapman, that noted purveyor of repurposed junk, get pompous about an impresario like Moore, and what his crazy projects say about capitalism. As for the collectors and traders, even knowing that an auction of NFTs once made $70m at Christie’s (this was during the spike), you still wonder at their gullibility. What unites nearly all the men in this film, in so many ways a parable for our times, isn’t taste or talent, but greed – and who, really, wants to see that rewarded? In the film’s final scene Moore sells his Bentley, a vehicle he bought in the long three minutes when he was rolling in it, for £13,359 to As performance art goes, it’s really quite perfect: a dead cert for next year’s Turner Prize.

The Stormtrooper Scandal
BBC Two; available on catch-up

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[See also: The election debates review: an embarrassing staff room squabble]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation