It must have happened in the middle of the night. One day it was there and next day it was not. A Banksy wall mural had been removed from the side of a commercial building in Wood Green in London and only the brick work remained.
Banksy, an anonymous guerrilla street artist has been adorning random walls of London (and now New York) with his stencil-like black and white images that make people question things. One day last February a mural depicting a small boy hunched over a sewing machine making Union Jack Flags, that had become a land mark in the area, was removed by the owner of the building and put up for auction in Miami.
There was a huge hullaballoo with the local residents and soon the wider art world. Who owned Banky’s work ? The building owner argued that it was painted on his property and therefore became his. But having established itself as local art, and increasingly important example of modern urban art; a wider ownership was claimed.
Pretty soon afterwards, because of the outcry the auction house in Miami got cold feet and withdrew it from the auction. It later sold in London, once the legal niceties had been sorted out.
The company that handled the sale of the mural, the Sincura Group issued a statement on their website which in part read:
It should be noted that both Scotland Yard and the FBI have issued statements that there is no evidence of criminality involved in the removal of this illegally painted mural and therefore no case to answer.
Of course it was illegally painted, that was the whole point of his work. He is anonymous – he strikes (paints) when no one is looking. Suddenly a subversive message appears before our eyes one morning and puts that little nagging
doubt into our minds for the rest of the day.
Now they are offering up another Banksy for auction. Like its predecessor it was removed from the side of a building, this time in the nearby area of Tottenham. The Sincura Group chairman said “it had not been appreciated in situ.” He obviously had never met any of the locals who have been bemoaning the loss of the Banksy works these last few weeks. I think what he actually meant by that was the people in the area were bit too poor and therefore couldn’t really appreciate such art work.
Sincura said it was being restored “beautifully” but returned – no, instead it was to be auctioned off and moved to a place where it could be really appreciated and afforded. Eventually it will be “owned” by a collector, possibly in New York. Although the company claimed they are trying to keep it in the country, conjuring up an image of grappling with an alligator in a swamp. They won’t lose any sleep losing that particular battle.
Banksy started his wall Murals about 15 years ago in Shoreditch an area of run down warehouses, cobbled streets and social housing. To the south it is overshadowed by the ever increasing Steel and Glass Towers of the banking district not half a mile away. The warehouses, long since empty of their wares, became home to artists, alternative living and the vibrant hopefuls of the new media. Attracted by low rents and a bohemian environment they were the vanguard of the transformation of Shoreditch
It is now the center of internet start-ups, design studios and fashion houses. What were once corner shops selling Asian foods and general provisions have become art galleries and Tapas bars. A Jewish tailor’s workroom has become a chic fashion store where if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it.
Before all that, when Banksy was starting his “illegal” craft, there opened a gallery who’s owner quickly discovered the meaning of art ownership on it’s opening night.
To call this room a gallery was a like calling a passport photo booth a studio. It was a tiny wooden building squashed between two other properties. Twenty feet across along the front, six foot deep at the narrow end of the triangle and 15 foot at its deepest. The owner, Adam Dant, lived on the top floor that enjoyed the same dimensions. Adam was one of those new artists attracted to the area. He was a cartoonist very much in the Hogarth tradition. He produced a daily pamphlet called “Donald Parsnips Daily Journal” a photocopied comic that he gave away to strangers on his
way into work at a Gallery in Bond street – very posh. He did this, every working day for four years or more. I dare not stray in the daily ramblings of Donald Parsnip, this would require a blog of its own, but enough to say that his wit and wisdom can be summed up in his notion that “There’s no time to lose like the present!”
Adam decided that he would open the downstairs cupboard as the “Gallerette” to have art exhibits without the art. So in April of 1996 he set about looking for his first non exhibit.
One night when walking with a friend Simon Tyrell, a local furniture designer, down a local street they passed a big skip at the side of the road. (A skip in the UK is a big steel bucket into which building waste is deposited and then taken away). Sticking out of the rubble and broken wood was a rolled up canvas. Unrolling it they found a painting that looked remarkably like one of those Damien Hirst famous Spiral paintings. Of course! Adam realised. They were standing outside the old workshop of Damien Hirst. He had recently moved to a larger property.
This was it. This was the opening exhibit of the Shoreditch “Gallerette” So – plans were made and the word went out that an opening night was approaching, but not on the serious art word grapevine, but on the more tongue in cheek fun arts network.
The show was to be called “ I found a Damien Hirst in a skip” with the accompanying statement that “You can find a Damien Hirst in a skip, but you won’t find him in the National Gallery!”
Adam stretched the canvas on a wooden frame that took up most of the gallery and leaned it against the wall. I doubt that we could have squeezed more than twenty people – elevator tight – into that small room. This was not going to be the art event of the century.
Or was it?
A couple of days before the opening night Adam Dant got a phone call from Damien Hirst’s “people” They wanted to know everything about the painting. Where he had got it, and for how much, was there a signature? what was its provenance and so on. They demanded to see a copy of his press release. He hadn’t made one. But he agreed he would send one over.
He wrote an account of how he found the painting in a rubbish skip and that modern art was being ignored by the establishment – or some such guff and just to make it easy for the Hirst “people” he went to the local Asian grocer shop and got it translated in Bengali; which he then faxed over to them (remember faxes?). By the time they had translated it back, they had become most alarmed.
Adam then got a call from Hirst’s “people’s” lawyers. Under no circumstances could this exhibition happen! they proclaimed. He was not to go ahead – on pain of death or in their parlance; court injunctions raining down upon his head from the heavens etc etc. .”This was not a Damien Hirst painting and could not be exhibited as such. That’s it! The wiry, talented Adam Dant on whose wit you could cut a tanker’s mooring rope saw a way out.
It was game on.
Two nights later about 25 of us managed to squeeze into that tiny room, our wine glasses held tight under our chins as we stood and appreciated a very large brown paper parcel leaning against the wall. It was a great evening, we all drank the free chilled white wine till it was gone and we went home with a nice smile on our faces having attended the opening night of “This is not a Damien Hirst Painting”
small “tut tut” pieces, but on the following Saturday morning, it being a slow news day, The Guardian devoted one third of its front page to the story, complete with a large colour picture of the offending painting. The news that Hirst’s “people” wanted to keep this under wraps had been exposed as surely as Wiki-leaks.
Interestingly enough, after the story appeared another local artist; Andy Shaw called Adam and said that the picture was infact done by him in his studio in Shoreditch and that he wanted to come along and sign it. Which he did, and after the exhibition, he was allowed to take the spiral painting away. This painting has recently gone into auction with a reserve price of £4000. In the brochure Shaw wonders why Hirst should have started doing spiral paintings after he had been doing them for some time. There are others who have made such comments – but we won’t go there. I am not in the mood for somebody’s “people” ringing me up.
During the opening night, a video of Orson Welles’s “F is for Fake” was playing – a documentary portrait of Elmyr de Hory the great self-confessed art forger was playing in the room.
Elmyr de Hory was an Hungarian born painter who had great difficulty in selling his own work. But what he found really easy was to imitate other contemporary artists. It could take him months to sell a painting of his own but only
a few days to paint an authentic Picasso. This he did to great profit, for years, roaming Europe and America. He claims to have sold his pictures to some of the world’s major Galleries who have exhibited the works as originals. He then progressed to Matisse, Modigliani and even Renoir. He claims rich private collectors have many of his fakes in their vaults.
Orson Welles travelled to Elmyr’s house on the Spanish Island of Ibiza to film the documentary. During the filming one house guest became woven into the story; who was none other than author Clifford Irving who wrote the fake autobiography of the reclusive newspaper magnate Howard Hughes. Irving also wrote the genuine biography of de Hory called “Fake”
Irving served a jail sentence for the Howard Hughes fraud whereas Elmyr de Hory evaded all prosecution right up to the last days of his life when, finally the Spanish agreed to extradite him to France. The aging ailing painter, who by now had given up forgeries and was at last seeing modest sales of his own works, took an overdose to avoid capture,. Later Irving said that he thought his death was probably faked.
Orson Welles of course directed “Citizen Kane” a film about a fictitious recluse newspaper magnate; and he could be said to be the original media fakers with his broadcast of “War of the Worlds” on New York radio in the 1930’s that convinced listeners that a real Martian invasion was happening which produced city-wide panic. He remarked that it was strange that he, a faker should be interviewing Irving another faker who had written the real biography of Elmyr de Hory the master faker of all time.
In the film Elmyr whipped off a quick Modigliani and said to Wells “this painting is worth nothing unless everyone believes it to be a real Modigliani and if they believe it to be real, then it is worth millions!” He then signs the painting. “For this” he says directly to camera “I could go to prison”. He throws the canvas onto the open fire place and what is worth millions goes up in flames.
After his death, Elmyr’s own paintings started to rise in value, sought after no doubt by Art collectors with a sense of irony. There are stories now that even some of his own work has been forged – by another faker.
You can probably find an Elmyr de Hory Modigliani in a National Gallery somewhere in the world, but pretty soon, you won’t find a Banksy on a wall – anywhere.