That Banksy became an international star in the art world was most unexpected, but that’s art for you, full of wonderful, provocative and surreal surprises. Though he divides popular opinion even today, he is an irrefutable part of what will be the history of contemporary art. He has changed things; that much is certain.
As a street artist, his canvas is, for the most part, urban structures, making his work at once open to all and, depending on where it is constructed, either permanent or fleeting, prone to graffiti – an irony in itself – and vandalism. From local authorities to you and me, everyone has the ability to ruin or preserve his work.
It’s a delicate subject, made even more uncertain by Banksy’s anonymity, his unwillingness to be part of the media circus, his desire to be true to his art, like Mark Rothko, silent for a reason. The question that often arises then, when discussing his work, especially the sale of it, as the ongoing wrangling on both sides of the Atlantic is exemplary of, is who owns it?
A mural of his, Slave Labour, which was stencilled on the side of a Poundland store in Wood Green, North London, was mysteriously removed recently. It reappeared in the US, on a list of works going under the hammer at an auction organised by Fine Arts Auctions Miami.
While its founder Frederick Thut had no issue with the legality of the situation, stating that the auction house takes care with its consignors, their history, their track record and so forth, the work was nevertheless pulled from sale at the last minute.
Mr Thut’s explanation as to why he had bowed to pressure isn’t absolutely clear. What he did say in a statement is that he had convinced the owner, whom is said to be a well-known collector, to withdraw the piece. Mr Thut remains confident that no laws have been broken and that no theft has been committed. Given that he has over 35 years in the business, which has seen him handle the sale of works by Monet, Picasso, Renoir and Matisse, it is reasonable to deduce his ability to gauge whether an impropriety has taken place.
As no theft has been reported – the Metropolitan police has received no such complaints – it is speculative as to what now happens to Slave Labour. Haringey Council is keen for the work to be returned to “the community where it belongs”, though where exactly it will go is anyone’s guess.
For in the vacant rectangular space once existed now lies a new work of art, if it can be called that, surrounded by other images. The central image is of a woman in a nun’s outfit, her mouth absent, a red star over her right eye. To the right of her, is a warning sign, that comically reads “danger, thieves”, while another to the right of her sees a rat holding a sign why the words “Why?” A heart has also now materialised. It is now something of a shrine.
So limbo it is. Banksy has never confirmed ownership of his works. That would always remain a difficult thing to do, as this case has highlighted, if only for the sole reason that anything painted on a private wall, graffiti or art, can be dealt with in accord to the proprietors wishes. One could remove the offending item, or, as seems to be the case here, seized upon for reasons not altogether clear.