Mural ‘disappeared’ under mysterious circumstances, but Frederic Thut insists it wasn’t stolen and says sale will go ahead
The owner of a Florida art house handling the controversial auction of a Banksy mural prised from a North London wall has spoken out to claim he is being unfairly scapegoated and insists the sale is legal and will take place.
Slave Labour, a spray painting depicting a barefooted boy making Union Jack bunting in a sewing machine by the celebrated street artist Banksy, was removed from the wall of a Poundland shop in north London last week under mysterious circumstances. As local authorities, residents and the shop’s owner have denied all knowledge, protests from UK authorities have turned to the Miami auctioneer.
Frederic Thut said that his Fine Art Auctions Miami gallery has been inundated with abusive phone calls and emails from the UK since it was revealed this week that the artwork by the secretive British street artist was set to go under the hammer Saturday for up to $700,000.
But Mr Thut, a 35-year veteran of art auctions who has handled tens of millions of dollars worth of work from artists including Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Renoir and Warhol, says the anger of those protesting the sale is misplaced.
“It’s been said that the artwork was stolen, and that is just not true,” he told the Guardian.
“We take a lot of care with our consignors, who they are, what they do, and if there’s any illegality we will not touch it. Everything is checked out 150%.”
Protests from London have focused on the anonymity of the seller and the covert removal of the 4 x 5 foot slab which literally disappeared from the wall, infuriating residents who described it as a gift to the local area.
Mr Thut confirmed only that the anonymous seller is a “well-known collector” who is not British. But he said that the owner’s prime motive for the sale was to conserve artwork that might otherwise be lost, and that the buyer would be supplied with a letter of provenance.
“Our consignors are not gamblers or money makers, they are people whose first interest is in art and its preservation,” he said.
“We respect our clients and their confidentiality. It’s not our decision to have [the Banksy] returned, we only sell it, we do not have control of it.”
Mr Thut, however, said that he supported the inclusion of the piece, and a second Banksy entitled Wet Dog, a 2007 artwork removed from the West Bank of Bethlehem and estimated in value between $600k to $800k, in Saturday’s 118-lot Modern, Contemporary and Street Art sale.
“It’s about conservation, here’s a piece of art, we are going to protect it,” he said. “It could have been destroyed. When you try to make an event with a speciality you want the best lots, and Banksy is a part of the street art scene.”
Politicians have joined the fight to prevent the sale. Local council leader
Claire Kober, the leader of Haringey council, escalated the fight to have the Banksy returned to London by writing to the Miami mayor, Tomas Regalado, and appealing to him to halt the sale.
In the letter she described the artwork, which appeared just before theQueen’s Diamond Jubilee last year and was interpreted as an attack on the celebrations, as “a landmark that people have come from all over London, the UK and the world to see”.
Although Mr Thut is certain that there are no legal obstacles to the sale, he fears that the furore might have damaged the reputation of his company, which moved into Miami’s trendy Wynwood arts district two years ago and has been steadily carving a niche as one of the city’s leading arts auctioneers.
“It’s sad because the majority of comments we have had are uneducated and people don’t understand,” he said. “We have a thick skin but this is not the kind of publicity that we were looking for and we’re really not too keen for this. It may be that this affects our reputation, and that’s not fair.”
Until this week’s Banksy controversy, the Miami company, founded by Mr Thut in September 2011 in partnership with his long-established New York-based appraisal business, was largely unknown outside of fine arts circles. It has a staff of seven scattered between Miami, New York and Paris and deals mainly with European clients.
But it scored a significant success in December at an auction during the city’s Art Basel fair when it sold a 1910 Valentin Serov portrait, which was expected to reach $150,000, for $4.7 million, a world record for a Russian painting.
Mr Thut, a Swiss-born art enthusiast and former dealer who was one of the pioneers of online art auction rooms, accepts he will probably now be better known for this episode, which he insists is not of his making.
Meanwhile Banksy, the reclusive artist who has in the past criticised the efforts of those who have tried to sell his works, has made no comment about the Miami sale, either personally or through his “handling service” Pest Control.
Marc Schiller, founder of the street art website woostercollective.com who claims to be a friend of Banksy, told the Guardian that the work was worthless in an art auction because it was only ever intended as a piece of location-specific social commentary.
“I’m not buying the argument that because Banksy put a piece in public it gives a person the right to steal and resell it,” he said. “When he is on the street he is giving his work to the public to enjoy for a day, a month, a year or more. His position has been that if you take his work out of its context it’s not his work any more, it’s no longer a Banksy.”
“Sothebys and Christies would not touch it and the only way you can sell it is through shady circumstances, by keeping yourself anonymous and never telling how you got it, how it came to be.”
He added that he doubted the auction would be successful. “The truth is that it’s worthless and even if somebody buys it for whatever price their only opportunity is to look at it from the perspective that it was acquired by theft,” he said.
“No legitimate collector would buy it. My argument is not that the sale shouldn’t happen, it’s that there shouldn’t be a market for it.”
[Banksy mural by Flickr user Katy Lindemann, creative commons licensed]