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Part I: Who Owns Street Art?

By Center for Art Law.

The reference to James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity in the title of this article is not flippant.  The rhetoric and vocabulary that is passe in the discussion of cultural heritage is now relevant to disputes over street art, formerly known as “graffiti.” A few years ago, even five years ago, street art held little or no value.  It was, in fact, considered a banal nuisance.

Street Art and Antiquities: The Concept of Monetary Value

Today, street art is a valuable commodity and collected by investors world-wide.  Peter Aspden of the Financial Times wrote in February that the concept of street art has drastically changed.  He wrote:

Banksy’s “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy this Shit”
marks the beginning of his commercial career.

The art world will never allow an underground movement to remain hidden from the view of the art market.  As soon as an artist achieves recognition, his works acquire value.  That is what has happened to Banksy and some of his cohorts, such as D*face, Paul Insect and Pure Evil.  Their work has been absorbed into the commercial world.  Never mind those irreverent anti-capitalist images, feel the auction estimates, which can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.

This is quite a cultural shift: from spraypaint tags by gangs on subway cars to the floor of Doyle New York, Sotheby and Bonhams.  This commercialization of street art is known as “The Banksy Effect.”

Banksy, “Space Girl and Bird,” sold for £288,000 ($576,000) in 2007.

Works by Banksy are the most desirable among collectors.  Even though the artist himself chooses to remain anonymous, his signature black and white stencil pieces break auction records at almost every sale.  One could even say that Banksy’s rivals Damien Hirst and all the YBAs.  On April 27, 2007, “Space Girl & Bird” sold at Bonhams for £288,000 ($576,000), almost twenty times the estimate.  February 13th, Banksy’s “Think Tank” sold at Sotheby’s London for £397,250 ($605,300), well over the £120,000- 180,000 ($182,700- $274,290) estimate.

This change in thinking of street art as a commodity mirrors the development of the antiquities trade in the 1900s. The idea that an archeological object has a monetary value is a relatively new concept.  There was a boom in private collecting following the discovery of Pompeii in 1748 and the 1922 excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carver and George Herbert.  Therefore, we can refer to the commercialization of antiquities as “The King Tut Effect,” or if you prefer, “The Pompeii Effect.”

The Mere Idea of Provenance

With such hefty price tags a complete provenance is imperative for the sale of both street art and antiquities.  Collectors and sellers need a clear trail of ownership from artist conception to dealer/auctioneer insuring, that illegalities have not occurred.  It is important to have proof that the work was not stolen, not related to illicit activity, and not exported or imported illegally.  There is a strong precedent that unprovenanced antiquities are scrutinized, removed from sales, and demanded to return to their source countries.  This is almost a daily occurrence in the antiquities market and may soon be common for street art in the future.

In fact, Sotheby’s London is leading the way, refusing to sell any Banksy artwork not accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from Pest Control, Banksy’s managing group. Because of recent events, the need for provenance records of street art may soon be standard.

Mexico, Peru and Guatamala joined forces in an effort to stop the sale of pre-Columbian artifacts, such as this  “Censer for Two People,” dating from 450-650 AD. Lot 26, €30,000- €40,000 ($38,000-$51,800) at Sotheby’s Paris March 22-23.

The original context for both street art and antiquities is very important.  This is a two-sided issue.  A well-documented context will increase the monetary value of works.  Yet, archeologists argue that the illicit looting of antiquities removes them from their historical and cultural context– destroying their non-monetary value as tools for education and learning.

Similarly, community activists argue that when street art is removed from its context the social meaning is lost.  Peter Aspden of the Financial Times reported: “There is something of the wild west about ownership of street art.  The only certainty is that it is not likely to remain in the street for very long.  It has simply become too valuable.”

Without provenance buyers will not buy and sellers will not sell (that is, at least not openly and publicly).

The high monetary value and collectability of street art and antiquities has increased demand. With high demand and insatiable buyers comes the requirement for supply. The pressure and profits to supply create a black market of underground trading.  This leaves both antiquities and street art vulnerable to looting.

Whether cut from building walls or shoveled from ancient dirt, context and provenance are key. In the next decade we may be seeing international agreements to protect valuable street art– just as countries are joining together to develop “understandings” about the antiquities trade.

 Banksy, “Slave Labour,” 2012 is at the center of a firestorm concerning street art ownership.

Banksy’s “Slave Labour” Goes to Market

In mid-February a news storm erupted when a Banksy mural went up for auction at Fine Art Auctions (FAA) in Miami.  The mural “Slave Labour,” portrays a child sweat-shop worker sewing Union Jack banners for the Diamond Jubilee.  The piece mysteriously disappeared from the wall of a shop in Wood Green, north of London.  No details or suspects are known.  The store and building owner deny any involvement.  Scotland Yard stated: “There have been no reports of any theft.  It appears there has been a decision by someone to remove it for sale– there is not suggestion of any crime being committed.”

The mural appeared in Miami’s Fine Art Auction catalogue with an estimate between $500,000- $700,000 (£328,063- £459,588).  Frederic Thut, owner of Fine Art Auction, told The Guardian: “It’s been said that the artwork was stolen, and that is just not true.  We take a lot of care with our consignors, who they are, what they do, and it there’s any illegality we will not touch it.  Everything is checked out 150%.”

The citizens of Wood Green do not agree. In fact, they were outraged.  Claire Kober, a council member, said in an interview with Bloomberg, “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.”  This statement sounds very much like arguments over antiquities.  The language and rhetoric are hard to ignore.

Protesters at Wood Green call for the return of Banksy’s “Slave Labour” to their community.

The sale of “Slave Labour” was cancelled at the last minute without any explanation from Fine Art Auction.  The Wood Green community sees this as a victory and look forward to the murals return.  Kober stated: “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.”

The question is: Does “Slave Labour” belong to the community of Wood Green?  Is it cultural heritage of the same standard as antiquities?  Should street art have the same legal protections as antiquities? I will explore these questions next week in Part II of this series.

Sources: “Street Art Aquires Value,” The Financial Times; “‘Stolen’ Banksy Jubilee Mural Pulled from Florida Auction After Council Pressure,” The Telegraph; “Banksy Mural: I’m Being Scapegoated, says Miami Art Dealer,” The Guardian; “Banksy Painting Fetches £288,000,” BBC News; Sotheby’s London, Contemporary Art Day, February 13, 2013, Lot 218 Auction Results.

Note: Doyle New York’s Street Art Auction is Thursday, April 8th.  This is only their second street art auction.