Auction of a piece of street art by Banksy

Today, unless the auction in Miami by Fine Arts Auctions Miami gallery will be halted at the last moment, a Banksy mural will be auctioned. It is believed the work can be sold for up to $700,000 (£450,000).

The work, known as Slave Labour, was removed from a wall in Wood Green, north London, and later turned up in Miami to be sold. It is a beautiful work and it is ironic that a piece that depicts a barefooted boy making union flag bunting in a sewing machine, hence the name of the work, may make a thief rich. Because let us be clear, when something is removed from a wall without anyone knowing it until after it has been removed, then it is taken illegally and thus stolen. Of course, homeowners can remove something they bought and placed against their wall unless society decides it no longer can be removed.

In the UK there is much commotion about this removal because the painting appeared on the wall only just before the Diamond Jubilee last year, celebrating 60 years of Queen Elisabeth II. Many British are angry and rightly so, because the painting was removed from the wall (and thus a house was damaged), then smuggled out of the country to be sold in the USA. Of course, it can be said it was illegally painted, but the British accepted it, it even became art and thus it should not have been removed without their agreement.

The gallery owner who plans to sell the mural says they checked whether the work was stolen and he says it is not, otherwise they would not sell it. Everything is checked out 150%. The identity of the person selling the mural has not been revealed. The gallery says "We respect our clients and their confidentiality. It's not our decision to have [the Banksy] returned. We only sell it, we do not have control of it". As if a salesperson doesn't have to be absolutely sure he is not selling stolen art (certainly when questions are raised before the sale), because if later it seems the art was stolen then he/she is also responsible as he/she should have done better research. The gallery owner claims he has become the scapegoat in a transatlantic arts row. If he doesn't want to be in the centre of the row, then he can decide to halt the sale until it has become absolutely sure nothing has been done illegally while now, certainly as the seller is not known, the gallery owner has to accept he becomes the scapegoat because he may earn quite a lot from the sale. Only when the British authorities decide nothing illegal took place the sale can continue.

Also the artist Banksy or his third party "handling service" remain quiet while in the past they criticised the efforts of those who tried to sell his work. Others say the painting is worthless in an art auction because it was only intended as a piece of location-specific social commentary and thus has only value as a street painting in a certain setting. This of course is not correct as then e.g. paintings made for a church building would be worthless outside that church while their value even increase outside the building and in the arts circuit where they can be sold. Further, today Banksy has become a very important name in the art world and as many buy art as an investment and not always because they love the work, the value of his work will probably only increase in time and thus the buyer probably hopes to earn even more in future.

Maybe the artist decided it is time to get some money from the paintings he made, or he may have died, reasons why he may not protest against the sale. Or maybe the homeowner decided to sell it as he decided it was on his wall and thus his property. These can be reasons the gallery thinks it can claim all is fine. Another option is that indeed an ordinary thief stole the work and sold it to an art dealer who then can show he/she bought it. I am only guessing and all can be wrong, but that also shows it is not good we don't know the name of the seller; certainly the authorities should be able to know his/her name. But even then the work can be considered as being stolen because it was made as a gift to society, and what is given can't be taken back unless society agrees to it.

As it has been taken away suddenly without having informed anyone, those who took it knew they were doing something they shouldn't or they would have informed the public. Therefore, I think the sale should be stopped, if not by the gallery owner then by the authorities until it is decided whether or not it was stolen.

On the other hand, some councils do not allow any graffiti on any wall within their borders, and then of course everything will be removed, not only ugly text but also beautiful paintings. But here it was clear this was a beloved work.

Can you imagine what may happen if the mural will be sold for a large amount of money while there is no intervention from the authorities and thus everyone can see that taking away murals, even those that are allowed, is not punished while it can make you rich? I fear not a single piece of free street art will remain. Of course, this would be great if you hate murals and simply consider them as dirt on walls. But I fear only the best pieces will be removed to be sold while I fear the ugly will be left. I can still remember the days that people making murals were called vandals while now their work may be worth thousands of dollars. A solution would be that certain areas are classified as areas where street art is allowed. But then the art will be overpainted as they were in the past, and thus beautiful ones will also disappear. On the other hand, artists can continue their hobby and paint nice ones on their own wall.

Of course, stealing street art that was bought (such as sculptures) will never be tolerated, but when someone gives something free to society, then that too should be valued. Or do we only value things that cost money? Further, can we allow people become rich by taking away things that belong to society? Because even when councils prefer not to have murals, they can destroy the art or sell it to those who love it (most sensible thing to do if the art is considered a nuisance) or they can decide the homeowner can sell it (art that is given away is no longer from the artist) while it should not be allowed some people become rich by stealing the work of others, certainly when the piece is loved by society and property is damaged.


Pascal said…
Update: I just read the auction has been put on hold. It also seems a new mural has been painted at the same spot as where Slave Labour was painted before. The new mural is a painting of a woman dressed as a non with a red star over her eye.

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