The tussle over a Banksy artwork scraped from a Wood Green wall to reappear in a Miami auction house was never meant to happen.
British street art flowered as a reaction against the dizzying commodification of the art market in the 1990s. It was created in a playful and spontaneous spirit and it belonged to the people. It was not supposed to end in legal wrangles and ownership disputes.
Banksy, the genre’s leading British exponent, has been one of the most trenchant critics of the art market and its gilded ways.
On hearing of the sale of one of his works at auction a few years ago, he immediately produced an image satirising the proceedings: an auctioneer standing in front of an art work that contained nothing but the words: “I Can’t Believe You Morons Actually Buy This Shit”.
What happened next was predictable. The artist produced the print in an edition of 300, many of which, naturally, have been sold at auction for several thousand pounds each.
That is the trouble with taking a naive view of street art. The art world will never allow an underground movement to remain hidden from the view of the 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.
With the magnitude of those sums in mind, the big auction houses have protected themselves and their clients. Olivia Thornton, head of day sales at Sotheby’s London, said the auction house would not handle a work by Banksy unless it was accompanied by a certificate of authenticity from the artist’s management group, Pest Control.
But at less exalted levels, there is something of the wild west about the 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.
In 2010, the Heritage Lottery Fund produced a report that tried to quantify the value of British culture to the economy. One of its examples was a Banksy exhibition held the previous year at Bristol City Museum, which it said accounted for 50,000 bed-spaces in local hotels and guest houses.
“This is the first show I’ve ever done where taxpayers’ money is being used to hang my pictures up rather than scrape them off,” said the usually reticent artist. Now it is others who are doing the scraping.