Imagine, for a moment, that you own a building in New York City.
One morning, you notice an oddly charming character or phrase spray painted on your wall. You shrug it off as the work of vandals, but by midmorning the sidewalk is swarming with people snapping photos, and you realize you have something valuable on your hands. Now what?
That's the situation several city property owners are finding themselves in this month thanks to the anonymous British street artist Banksy.
On Oct. 1, Banksy announced “Better Out Than In,” a monthlong “residency on the streets of New York.” Each day since, he has unveiled another piece, sending fans (and rivals) into a frenzy.
Banksy has created a number of multimedia and performance works, but mostly, he has been spray-painting stencils all over the city. And this could be good news for building owners.
The artist’s canvasses regularly fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars — and his outdoor work even more. In June of this year, an unsanctioned Banksy mural in north London was cut out of the wall and sold at auction for over $1 million.
A few property owners have secured Banksy’s pieces since his “residency” began. After he scrawled a quote cheekily attributed to the philosopher Plato on the door of a Greenpoint warehouse, the owner removed it, hinges and all. Owners in Red Hook and Williamsburg have taken similar actions to protect their newly adorned walls.
If any of these property owners decide to sell these “vandalized” works of art, they may face challenges. Apart from the backlash from street art aficionados, there is the practical problem of authenticating the work.
In 2008, Banksy created Pest Control, a service that verifies his work, to help cut down on fraud. Pest Control only authenticates paintings and prints, not street pieces, making them impossible to sell in the world’s biggest auction houses.
“Major auction houses guarantee the authenticity of their work,” said Angelo Madrgiale, a “street art specialist” for auction house Doyle New York. “In Banksy's case, an auction house can't guarantee the work's authenticity without having the certificate from Pest Control.”
“This work was not meant to be bought or sold,” Madrgiale added. “The artwork they authenticate are prints, works on canvas, and other such works that were shown in galleries or otherwise created with the intent of being purchased.”
Certain art galleries and auction houses disagree, and are happy to deal with works taken straight from the street. One such retailer, New York’s Keszler Gallery, has brokered the sale of several Banksy street pieces in recent years. According to owner Stephan Keszler, three individuals have contacted the gallery about selling Banksys since the artist’s citywide spree began.
Keszler estimates that the “Plato” door could fetch between $20,000 and $40,000.
Though there’s sometimes a stigma surrounding buying and selling street art, Keszler believes the practice shouldn’t be demonized, as the pieces can sometimes bring unwanted attention to a building, or in some cases additional vandalism.
“Let's assume you have a building in Brooklyn, and all of a sudden, there’s a Banksy piece on your wall,” Keszler said. “People gather outside, they destroy the work, they paint on your building, they hammer on it. What would you do?”
“It’s not immoral,” he added. “It’s just the way it is.”
Read more about the newest Banksy at AnimalNewYork.com.
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