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From UK to US, An Artful Mystery Rages

Monday, March 4, 2013

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A beloved mural by phantom British street artist Banksy is on the move across two continents, aswirl in mystery and controversy over its whereabouts and fate.

The location of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't artwork has continued to befuddle those involved for weeks, reports say.

Painted only last year, Slave Labour depicts a young barefoot boy sewing Union Jack flags. It first appeared on the wall of a Poundland shop in the Haringey borough of North London.  

Banksy mural in London

Banksy's Slave Labour mural has had an eventful month. The piece was ripped off a wall in London and set to appear on the auction block in Miami. It was taken off the block after an outcry from the UK. 

Local residents voiced delight when the mural went up, saying the artwork had "put them on the map." 

But they were shocked to find the piece gone the week of Feb. 11 and were even more put out when the art resurfaced—this time at Fine Art Auctions Miami, thousands of miles away.

Baffled by the work's unexplained disappearance (and the fact that it was estimated to sell for a cool $500,000 to $700,000), the community began kicking up a media storm to get back what it considered a gift from the well-known grafitti artist.

The mural, which makes a statement about sweatshop labor and patriotism, had attracted international visitors.

Sale Stopped

Haringey councilmembers, big fans of the mural, asked local residents to e-mail and call the auction house, demanding answers and protesting the sale, reports relate.

“For you to allow it to be sold for huge profit in this way would be morally wrong and completely contrary to the spirit in which we believe it was given to our community,” according to a letter the borough council reportedly sent to the auction house.

Fine Art Auctions Miami

Fine Art Auctions Miami maintains the art was legally consigned by a private donor and was expected to take in up to $700,000. But the sale was cancelled.

Fine Art Auctions Miami told the community that the Banksy was not “stolen” but had been consigned by a private collector. The auction house pressed on with the sale, scheduled for Feb. 23,  even featuring the Banksy work on the cover of the sale catalogue.

But as the public chorus of complaints by lovers of Banksy and public art grew, the work was taken off the auction block at the 11th hour, reports said.

A spokesman for the auction house told the Guardian there had been “no legal issues whatsoever” in cancelling the sale. Other reports said the piece had been returned to its unidentified consigner.

Bringing Back Banksy

The community is considering the move a small victory, though it still does not know the true owner of the artwork or where it might be located. It has enlisted Metropolitan Police, the British government, and the FBI in this investigation, according to CBS.

“It's a true credit to the community that their campaigning appears to have helped to stop the sale of this artwork from going ahead,” Haringey Council Leader Claire Kober told the Daily Mail.

“We will continue to explore all options to bring back Banksy to the community where it belongs.”

Building Owners Silent

The owner of the building the mural once graced, Wood Green Investments (which rents to Poundland), has remained silent throughout the artistic drama.

“My clients have not reported any theft to the police,” Matthew Dillon, an attorney for the company, told the New York Times.

©Jeff Moore / Daily Mail

This rat appears on the wall in place of Slave Labour. His question: "Why?" The work's artist is not known.

Speaking with The Financial Times, however, Dillon said his clients faced a connundrum.  

“If they deny removing the mural, they will become embroiled in an international criminal investigation,” he told the newspaper, “and if they admit to consenting to it, then they will become the target of abuse."

“The advice to my client has been to say nothing.”

New Mural Appears

Meanwhile, as one mural mystery continues to smolder, another has begun. The Daily Mail reports that a new mural, showing a woman in a nun’s habit and a small rat, has gone up in Slave Labour’s place.

The rat is holding a sign that asks, simply, “Why?”

It is unclear whether Banksy was involved in the new installation. Reports are mixed, and he doesn’t give interviews.


Tagged categories: Aesthetics; Artists; Design; Murals

Comment from Patrick McKeegan, (3/4/2013, 2:01 PM)

Lots of interesting unanswered questions. If the artist did not ask permission does he still own the art or is it truly illegal grafitti? If the owner gave permission does he now own the piece of art? As an artistic statement is the piece still relevant if it is moved from the original location?

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