It seemed general consensus that no one really knew the facts about the auction last Saturday of a piece by graffiti artist Banksy. Certain parties weren't talking. In retrospect, the answer may have been simply that Fine Arts Auctions Miami knew what may be coming, that it would have to withdraw the piece over questions about who actually owns it.
There was an obvious air of scandal and intrigue about the day’s sale, and the first few of us to arrive, all reporters, were openly sharing what they thought of the situation through mumbles of hearsay and piecemeal internet information. It was uninteresting side-talk, but also the overwrought anticipation of a massive art world transaction.
The internet has made showing up to an auction house effectively pointless. A few people with nicer shoes and actual wristwatches strolled in immediately before the first lot, but only a few, and there were enough seats for around 30 that never went completely filled. The aseptic and controlled procedure of the art world was running its customary course.
The two Banksy pieces up for auction were lots six and seven. Everyone in attendance, and across the world, anxiously awaited the buying public’s response. The paintings were scheduled early in the proceedings, and I figured I wouldn’t have to wait long to make an appreciable yet respecting gasp at the final dollar amount. Before the first gavel struck, Slave Labour (Bunting Boy), 2012, which depicts a child at a sewing hand manufacturing Union Jack flags, was predicted to at least hit the half million-dollar mark.
The piece was unexpectedly pulled at the last minute and no word was given why. The auctioneer, and Director of Fine Art Auctions Miami, Frederic Thut, garbled unceremoniously that both lots six and seven were removed. There was a second piece, Wet Dog, 2007, by the enigmatic street artist, that fell victim to the controversy surrounding the other sale.
The Guardian reported the moment as dramatic. I would dispute that. The decision seemed almost paltry, passed over quickly, and close to not even registering. We sat like a crowd watching a drunken magician, waiting for a reveal that wasn’t coming.
Whispers and speculation point towards proof being provided that the piece was removed from the wall in London illegally and without permission, though the auction house claimed to have all the proper paperwork. The other option is that Thut, having an eleventh hour ethical dilemma due to the media hullabaloo, decided to steer clear of creating further commotion. No one knows the whole story. And it appears that is the way it will remain for some time. Thut and his team refused comment after the sale.
One of the reasons art crime is such an unforgiving career path for criminals is the fungibility of the product. Rarely is a stolen product able to be sold through official channels, which is why a good deal of the paintings or statues end up never found, possibly destroyed, or used as collateral for further illicit activities at a greatly reduced value remaining entrenched in the shadowy realm of international crime. Given the criminal world’s general unscrupulousness, it seems highly unlikely that Thut, who is used to handling high profile and expensive pieces, would have overlooked such a scenario. Though Fine Art Auctions is a relatively new venture, Thut himself has over 30 years of experience in the industry.
So did the Thut cave to the pressures of controversy? At this point, everyone is speculating. It is a growing online and traditional media circus.
The citizens of Haringey were extremely upset and the auctioneer in Miami felt like a scapegoat for a non-controversy. The owners of the original building whose wall it was carved from have said nothing. The consignor described by Thut as a “well-known collector” is silent. There were unconfirmed reports that the FBI was investigating the situation but they too are refusing comment on the situation. And of course, Banksy, has said nothing.
Following the various narratives, it seems that this story traveled so swiftly because the residents of Haringey made what ended up being a loud enough plea to an empathetic media for this sale to be tabled. It remains to be seen if the wall will return to its original home.
Lainey Salisbury, author of Provenance, sees the controversy over Slave Labour as a moral question, not a legal issue and goes on to ask, “if street art isn’t for the public than what is?” The over commoditization of art has taken graffiti off the streets by literally carving it out of a wall, and means to put these works into the hands of very wealthy people. The art world’s detached nonchalance from the general public makes the situation precarious. The general public be damned if these hallowed walls can be jackhammered directly into a gallery.
Finding facts on the Internet in a situation so muddled is like walking a quaking maze. People are posting and reposting, often without attribution or more thought than a click. A fake press release was released the day before the auction and inundated social media channels, claiming news of the arrest and revealed identity of Banksy, who has remained anonymous despite international art world fame. After a series of fact checks it appears Banksy’s real name is safe, and he is not in jail, but it also appears the massive and quickly moving workings of the internet likes to engage when it comes to Banksy. And though in the case of Slave Labour, social media appears to have won a community moral victory, this fake press release has worked further confusion.
A Banksy style piece has since appeared on the same wall from which Slave Labour was carved in Haringey depicting a rat asking the question “Why?” Unless the artist himself makes a statement on the matter, we can assume nothing about the provenance of this rat. As renowned art crime expert Noah Charney states, Banksy’s work “is notoriously easy to forge.” Indeed he relates a story of Scotland Yard’s former Art Squad chief, Vernon Rapley, who was able to reproduce a forensically indistinguishable Banksy piece for six pounds sterling using Photoshop and spray paint.
The price of his artwork — whether six British pounds or six hundred thousand U.S. dollars — is a question Banksy would scoff at. I don’t pretend to presume what Banksy would say but it seems hard to imagine the vocal anti-capitalist being complicit in one of his public works being torn from it’s original context and sold for such an obscene amount making art world types such as Thut and the anonymous consignor rich in the process. Though Charney does suggest that Banksy might “think that thefts of his work, forgeries of it, and manufactured provenance are fun and games,” so it is possible that the guerrilla street artist is having a laugh at everyone’s expense as this art world snafu unfolds in the press.
At this point in his career, it’s hard to ignore the reality that Banksy has become a hugely marketable cog in the capitalist machine that he started out preaching against. Unfortunately, much like Thut’s FAAM and the isolated incident of the Slave Labour sale, he can no longer control his own narrative.