The mystery of a disappearing piece of street art took a new turn at the weekend as a Banksy mural, taken from the wall of a shop in London, was withdrawn from auction in Florida.
Claire Kober, leader of Haringey council, which campaigned for the artwork’s return to the UK, said: “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.”
A spokesman for Fine Art Auctions in Miami said: “Although there are no legal issues whatsoever regarding the sale of lots six and seven by Banksy, FAAM convinced its consignors to withdraw these lots from the auction and take back the power of authority of these works.”
The mystery has stretched from a suburban north London street to the high-end Miami auction house. The international investigation, initiated by Haringey council, now involves the British government, the Arts Council, the Metropolitan Police and the FBI – yet all have failed to cast light on who chiselled the piece from the side of a Poundland store last Saturday.
“Slave Labour”, depicting a young boy stitching a Union Jack bunting, was stencilled on the Wood Green shop shortly before the Queen’s diamond jubilee last year.
Set to be auctioned by Fine Art Auctions Miami on Saturday, the work was estimated to fetch up to $700,000 (£459,000). However, Haringey council and a host of voices from the international art world said it should not be sold at all.
Who placed the work in the auction remains a mystery. Wood Green Investments, the property company that owns the Poundland shop unit, has remained silent throughout the dispute.
The company’s solicitor said: “If they deny removing the mural then 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.”
The Metropolitan Police confirmed they had received “an inquiry from US authorities” regarding ownership of the art work. “We have advised the US authorities there are no reports of theft,” a spokesman said. The auction house had previously said it had done “all the necessary due diligence about the ownership of the work” and would only halt the sale if authorities could prove it was taken illegally.
Art lovers from as far as Bangladesh, Canada and France petitioned the auction house in support of a campaign started by Alan Strickland, Haringey councillor, who wanted to see the work brought back to the UK.
Cautioning that a “strong market in removed street art” could develop if the sale went ahead, Mr Strickland warned: “People will start seeing Banksy work around the world as easy money.”
The removal of Banksy’s work has raised questions over the preservation and ownership of public art to the fore.
Property lawyers believe that the owner of the building would be entitled to sell the mural. “The local authority can’t really do much, except try and get the building listed or get English Heritage involved,” said Daniel Levy, property litigator and partner at Mishcon de Reya.
Mathew Ditchburn, partner at Hogan Lovells, the law firm, said: “You could then end up with a bizarre situation where teams of heritage officers are chasing around after Banksy in the dead of night, looking to list any building that he daubs with his graffiti.”
The site of the missing Banksy has been plastered over and now features a stencilled rat holding a sign asking “Why?”
Referring to the new stencil, solicitors for the building’s owner said their client was “taking steps to secure this and will be asking Haringey council to take responsibility for the costs of such security”.
The council said: “There’s nothing to suggest this latest stencil is an authentic Banksy, although we would be happy to discuss security concerns with the owners.”
The Department for Media, Culture and Sport had told the Financial Times on Friday that “the government has no powers to intervene in this matter which, on the face of it, appears to be a lawful and legitimate sale”.