Feb. 23 (Bloomberg) -- A Banksy mural recently removed from a London street was tonight withdrawn from an auction in Florida -- after starting a debate on who owns street art and when it can be sold.
The spray painting “Slave Labour,” showing a young boy making Union Jack bunting with a sewing machine, had been stenciled by the pseudonymous artist on the wall of a Poundland store in the Wood Green area of northeast London in 2012.
The work, satirizing Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, was removed from the wall earlier this month. It has re-appeared in a sale of modern, contemporary and street art at Fine Art Auctions Miami, estimated at $500,000 to $700,000. The lot was withdrawn at the last moment, Fine Art Auctions said.
“There’s a sense of outrage among local people,” Claire Kober, Leader of Haringey Council, said in an interview before the planned auction. “Banksy gives these paintings to communities. They’re cultural assets that generate a huge sense of civic pride. Morally, if not legally, we act as guardians rather than owners.”
Kober wrote to Tomas Regalado, mayor of Miami, on Feb. 21, appealing to the fellow local politician to stop the auction of the painting. As of yesterday, she hadn’t received a reply, Kober said. After the sale was cancelled, she claimed it was a success for her campaign.
Bristol-born Banksy is the world’s most famous and expensive urban artist. A canvas by him sold for a record $1.9 million at auction in February 2008. In that same year, he introduced an authentication service, Pest Control, intended to regulate the market for his paintings and street murals.
Pest Control routinely fails to authenticate site-specific pieces, citing the artist’s desire to keep his public works in their original contexts. Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and other leading auctioneers will not offer works without this certification.
“Slave Labour” hasn’t been endorsed by Pest Control, according to the Fine Art Auctions Miami online catalog. The company declined to reveal the identity of the sellers when telephoned by Bloomberg News.
“FAAM has done all the necessary due diligence about the ownership of the work,” the Florida-based auction house said in an earlier statement. “Unfortunately, we are not able to provide you with any information, by law and contract, about any details of this consignment. We are more than happy to do so however if you can prove that the work was acquired and removed illegally.”
The Poundland store occupies a building owned by Wood Green Investments Limited, David Hardiman, Haringey Council’s senior communications officer, said in an interview yesterday.
Wood Green Investments is a property company registered at Woodford Green, Essex, according to the U.K. registry, Companies House. Its co-directors are named as Robert Alan Davis and Leslie Steven Gilbert, both based in Essex. Calls to the company’s lawyers, MJD Solicitors, were not returned.
“The council leader has tried repeatedly to engage with Wood Green Investments,” Hardiman said. “They haven’t responded.”
Owners of buildings painted by artists have argued that the graffiti, painted without their permission, can disfigure the exteriors. Some take the view that the artist has given them the work to do with as they wish, rather than it being public property.
Haringey’s attitude to the lost Banksy contrasts with the past responses of some other local authorities. In 2008, Islington council in north London painted over a Banksy mural of two young girls playing with a Kalashnikov rifle, following complaints from residents.
In London in 2008, Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull attempted to sell five site-specific spray paint and stencil works by Banksy that Pest Control refused to endorse. Ranging in value from 30,000 pounds to 150,000 pounds, they all failed to find buyers.
“Banksy prefers street work to remain in situ, and building owners tend to become irate when their doors go missing because of a stencil,” the authentication service said in a statement at the time.
This Miami auction was also to include the 2007 Banksy street painting, “Wet Dog,” estimated at $600,000 to $800,000. This three-ton stencil on concrete, showing the outline of a dog that has shaken wet paint over a wall, had been removed from the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
It was acquired and offered for sale by the New York City and Southampton, New York, dealer Stephan Keszler in 2011, initially priced at $420,000. This lot was removed from the Miami online auction shortly before the event started and Fine Art Auctions said it had also been withdrawn.
“Pest Control has done a good job regulating the market for Banksy street works that weren’t intended for sale,” Mike Snelle, director of the London-based gallery Black Rat Press, said in an interview. “If they haven’t got certification, they’re difficult to sell. You don’t know if they’re real.”
Yesterday, two new stencils appeared on either side of the re-plastered hole in the Poundland wall where “Slave Labour” had been. To the right, a sorrowful Banksy-style rat holds a placard saying, “Why?” To the left, a sign warns “Danger Thieves.” It is not as yet known whether the artist himself made these painted comments in the early hours of Feb. 22.
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on books, Richard Vines on food and Lewis Lapham on history.
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