One of the most bizarre art “thefts” in recent times must be the disappearance of a mural by Banksy from outside a Poundland store that eventually led to FBI involvement. The very nature of street art means that it is vulnerable but the manner in which his image titled “Slave Labour” was removed and hastily appeared up for auction in Miami was stranger than fiction.
The painting shows a young boy hunched over a sewing machine making Union Jack bunting and was created shortly before the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. It was strategically placed on a wall in Wood Green, north London, adjacent to the local Poundland. The store was at the centre of a child labour controversy three years ago when a boy of seven was found to be working 100 hours a week in an Indian sweatshop producing goods for the retailer. Ravi was reportedly making 7 pence an hour for making napkin rings. Poundland subsequently cut all links with the supplier and issued a statement saying it “did not tolerate child labour under any circumstances”.
The first “damage” to the image occurred when the bunting mysteriously disappeared. But that was nothing to the shock of discovering that the image had been removed completely in February this year. It was soon discovered as being due up for auction in Miami with an expected sale price of £450,000. After news of the public outcry and media attention reached the auction house, it was removed from the sale along with a second work by Banksy, “Wet Dog”.
Haringey Council campaigned for the immediate return of the artwork to the UK, claiming that it had been gifted by the artist to the community. Local artists responded by replacing the Bansky with an image of a rat holding up a sign saying “Why?” and a painting of a nun with a red star over one of her eyes. It appears that the image was removed by the property firm Wood Green Investments, owners of the site. A Scotland Yard spokesman said: “There have been no reports of any theft. It appears there has been a decision by someone to remove it for sale – there is no suggestion of any crime being committed. We have been in touch with the US authorities about the ownership of it and advised them that there has not been a theft.”
A solicitor for Wood Green Investments explained: “If they deny removing the mural they will become embroiled in an international criminal investigation that has already involved the FBI, but if they admit to consenting to its removal, then they will become the target of abuse. As a consequence, the advice to my client has been to say nothing.”
This fascinating case raises all sorts of questions over street art. One man’s art is another man’s graffiti. Is the artist “contributing” to the community or to the site owner? Is the site owner not fully within his rights to sell the artwork? At what point, if any, does it become public property? For the moment the main concern appears to be whether it will be returned.