Early last month, residents of Midwood woke up to a pair of new neighborhood beautification projects.
At the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Avenue I, an empty single-story building suddenly sported an anti-gentrification mural: the silhouette of a suit-clad real-estate developer wielding a jagged graph line — the kind associated with rising stock prices — as people ran ahead of him, as if being chased. Next door, an abandoned gas station boasted a painting of a seal balancing a red-orange ball that was once part of a Mobil logo.
Rumors circulated that the art was done by Banksy, the notorious, anonymous, UK-based street artist who has splashed politically charged images upon walls from Bethlehem, West Bank, to Liverpool, England. Finally, on March 19, a message on Banksy’s Instragram — 2.1 million followers strong — confirmed that he (the artist is widely believed to be a man) had created it. But other questions remained unanswered: Who really owns the works — and should anyone be able to make money from them?
In a world where Banksy street-pieces — essentially, illegally created public art — cut from buildings can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars, proprietary domain is a hot-button issue. Legally, according to attorney Eric Baum, who represented artists in litigation involving the 5 Pointz mural space in Long Island City, “The owner of the building can sell [or keep] the artwork.” And, he adds, the property owner can also destroy it.
Such was the case when a Banksy-rendered Mickey and Minnie Mouse was ripped off of a billboard in Los Angeles and tossed in the trash in 2011. Pieces can also be hidden away (a Coney Island landlord keeps a gate pulled down to conceal a 2013 Banksy painting of a robot) or sold to the highest bidder.
When Evan Franca, a restaurateur who lives in Prospect Heights, saw the images of the Midwood works on Banksy’s Instagram account, he decided to get in on the action.
The businessman rendering had been painted over by unknown parties. But “I really liked the [seal] piece,” Franca, 33, told The Post. “So I reached out to the owners [of the building] to let them know what they have. They told me they were demolishing the building in a couple weeks. They’re planning to build a storage facility on the property.
“I offered a low price for the artwork on the building,” he continued, hinting that it was in the $20,000 range. “They said they would have to set back their demolition schedule [for the removal] and it was not worthwhile for less than $100,000.”
Franca has not yet decided what to do. “It will cost me another 100K to get it into shape,” he said. “I spoke with an engineer and a contractor. They’d remove [the section]. Then a fine-art mover will have to transport the painting — it will weigh 2 to 3 tons — and we’ll build a steel frame around it.”
The clock is ticking, not only on the demolition timeline but also on the possibility that another buyer could swoop in. Although an unknown party has now hired 24-hour guards to protect the piece, they’re actually a bit late: Someone already smeared a bit of black paint inside the orange ball and scrawled initials next to it. Franca says he’s not worried about those augmentations diminishing the work’s value.
Still, there’s a lot to weigh up.
Beyond the possibility of getting stuck with a $200,000 pile of bricks that nobody wants, Franca would be dropping himself into an art world controversy du jour: Fans and dealers are up in arms over whether or not street art should be tampered with and, of course, who should make money from it.
Banksy himself made his feelings clear when reacting via his website to a 2014 exhibition and auction of his street work, at the ME London Hotel, called “Stealing Banksy,” which had an admission price of $25: “This show has nothing to do with me and I think it’s disgusting people are allowed to go displaying art on walls without getting permission.”
Danish dealer Peter Hvidberg says that’s too bad: “Banksy is playing outside of the rules [by creating street art]. Once he does that, he has to understand that other people will not play by the rules. Once money is involved, people will take your art and you have to live with it.”
Legally profiting off Banksy’s illegally created art is at the heart of “The Man Who Stole Banksy,” a documentary premiering Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival. The movie focuses on what happened after Banksy created nine paintings in Bethlehem in 2007, all addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A Palestinian taxi driver who calls himself Walid the Beast convinced the owner of a graffitied building to carve out the Banksy — which shows an Israeli soldier checking a donkey’s papers — and sell it on eBay. Walid, naturally, expected a cut of the profits.
But the movie serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that scoring a Banksy off of a building is the way to a fabulous fortune. After languishing unsold on the Internet for years, the 84-by-126-inch piece, “Donkey Documents,” finally went to a pair of Scandinavian art dealers for north of $100,000 in 2013 (Walid received no compensation).
Two years later, they put it up for sale at Julien’s Auctions — an auction house in Beverly Hills, Calif., that has sold 34 Banksy street pieces from around the world — with the expectation it would go for at least $400,000.
In a shocking twist, the piece went unsold. Auction house owner Darren Julien blames it on the dealers having had the work restored. “It looked less faded and the donkey’s belly was larger [before],” said Julien. “We had to tell our customers and they backed out.”
One of the dealers, Hvidberg, insisted that the work was never restored and that any changes are a consequence of oil used to cool saw-blades during the removal. “Darren [Julien] is a complete a – – hole,” Hvidberg told The Post. “It’s a lie that it got restored. We took the piece back. It is for sale.”
He will not give an exact number but said the price tag is in excess of $500,000.
Damage claims aside, there’s also the problem of the street-art code of ethics. “Most people who collect Banksy don’t see [the removal and sale of street pieces] as cool,” said Brian Swarts, president of Taglialatella Galleries, which has a branch in Chelsea that sells sanctioned works by the artist. “There is a moral issue when people tear out whole walls from buildings to get the pieces . . . The works are put out in the street for free, so people can enjoy them” — not profit from them.
But New York art dealer Stephan Keszler, who’s sold 15 of Banksy’s street pieces, sees a service component in what he does. “I believe that I salvage the work,” Keszler said. “Otherwise the buildings get demolished or the art gets destroyed by idiots.”
While Banksy himself does not profit from the purloined street work, he has plenty of other pipelines for earning money. His paintings, sometimes inspired by street pieces, are regularly sold privately or at auction, authenticated by a sort of clearing house of his called Pest Control. Additionally, numbered prints (sometimes signed) authenticated by Pest Control get produced in editions numbering in the hundreds.
Because Banksy has not released a multiple edition print since 2010, that market is hot. At the Chelsea gallery Guy Hepner, a numbered Banksy print called “Pulp Fiction” (it shows John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson holding bananas instead of guns) now sells for $20,000. It came out of an edition of 600 in 2004 when it went for under $100.
The artist is estimated by the Financial Times to be worth some $30 million. Maybe that takes the sting out of his work ending up on cheap posters without permission. As a policy, Banksy does not pursue action against copyright infringement.
Nevertheless, some in the art world believe that Banksy, for all his political posturing, is a shrewdly calculated capitalist.
“Banksy created a controversy that works in his favor because people talk about him and his work,” said Keszler. “The street work is a marketing tool for him to make his living with his artwork. I think he is a marketing genius.”
While street pieces are never authenticated by Pest Control, Banksy essentially verifies them by featuring the graffiti works on Instagram and on his website. Sometimes he even gives them their titles; other times they get called for what they are — such as an untitled piece from 2013 known as “Heart Balloon.”
Per Hvidberg, the street works have a sense of immediacy that the studio canvases lack. “The studio ones are not the real thing; they are like tigers in a zoo,” he said.
But it’s the rare art-world pro who wants to handle a Bansky from the wild.
One reason why auction-house owner Julien has sold so many of Banksy’s street pieces — 34 all told — is that big auction houses, including Sotheby’s and Christie’s, won’t because of a lack of official authentication.
Gallerist Swarts said it’s often for reasons of profitability and propriety. “You’ll never get a street piece authenticated by Pest Control,” he said. That limits the asking price: The most Julien has auctioned off a street Banksy for is $212,000, a fraction of the $1.7 million that the artist’s “Keep It Spotless” (created in studio and authenticated by Pest Control) went for at a Sotheby’s charity auction in 2008. Swarts added, “A person with [a major] collection doesn’t want somebody walking into his house and asking who stole the Banksy for him. There can be a stigma.”
Julien has no such qualms. “We sold a car door from a piece that Banksy did in New York, for $75,000. [The person who brought it in] did not own the car,” he said. “He got the door somehow. As long as we know it’s real, we’re OK. We’re not the police.”
The buyer of the door is Steve Spina, who owns a moving company in Malibu, Calif. The piece, “Crazy Horse Car Door,” came from a 2013 Lower East Side installation by Banksy. The title derives from a military helicopter.
“It spoke to me,” said Spina, a Vietnam vet. “Between his working on the street and his aloofness, Banksy is very alluring. I think of him as a pure artist . . . [not] sitting on a yacht and wondering how many pieces he needs to sell in order to pay his crew.”
Back in 2013 when Banksy spent October in New York City, laying down new public work each day, Keszler got his hands on three of them. Most were taken on consignment from the people on whose property they landed. One was a pile of bricks that had been stacked just outside a fenced lot in Willets Point to resemble the Sphinx — the only of the three that actually sold. (He won’t reveal for how much.) The auto-garage workers who took it did not own the property where it was placed.
Keszler chalks up lackluster sales to the local works being inferior to Banksy’s best. “The New York works were not exciting,” he said. He is getting bored with Banksy anyway. “As someone who has invested millions and made millions [on Banksy’s street art], I think the work is getting too commercial.”
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