The cinderblock and concrete section of wall that elusive street artist Banksy painted in 2010, at an abandoned Detroit Packard plant, weighs approximately 1,500 pounds. This would probably not be relevant information if the wall and painting — a stencil of a boy in a hoodie holding a paint can next to the free-handed words “I remember when all this was trees” — had stayed where they were. But instead, only a few days after the painting appeared, artists from 555 Gallery, a local nonprofit space, went to the Packard plant to extract the work. They brought some friends, about a dozen people in total. They also brought a concrete-cutting saw and a torch and, according to a Detroit Metro Times article, had the unofficial permission of a guy named Butch, who monitored the plant. It took them all day to remove the section of wall and crate it. They had to return the next morning to drive in a Bobcat and haul away the unwieldy artwork.
The criticism came almost immediately. Local artist Matt Eaton appeared on Detroit’s local public radio station to voice concerns about the removal. And Banksy himself (or herself?), most recently in the news for the pop-up theme park Dismaland s/he masterminded on the British coast, has decried the removal of his/her artwork from their intended sites. A main problem with such removals is that it often means the public can no longer visit or see the art. The artist also has criticized the subsequent unauthorized sale of the removed street work. So Carl Goines and his partners at 555 Gallery announced they would not be selling it, and they made the salvaged slab of wall available for public viewing.
Except now, five years later, the slab of wall is sitting at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills. A tarp with a large-format photograph on it, showing how the work initially looked at the Packard plant, hangs behind it. Anyone can visit to see this and the other street art on view at Julien’s through Sept. 30, after which the work will be auctioned. The Banksy mural could possibly fetch more than $1.2 million, though the auction house’s more modest estimate is $400,000, which will go toward 555 Gallery’s programming. Installed in a room that also includes authorized Banksy prints as well as other framed paintings and prints by street-associated artists, the slab of wall certainly has a grit and intrigue that outshines the wall work. You can see why someone might be compelled to pay big.
Another Banksy work, not actually at Julien's Auctions because it’s currently on display in London, will be auctioned next week. It’s called Donkey Documents, and its origins are equally complicated. Painted by Banksy in Bethlehem, on the West Bank, it shows a donkey (a reference, most likely, to the one on which the pregnant Virgin Mary rides into Bethlehem in Bible stories) having its papers checked by an armed soldier. Painted during Banksy’s 2007 visit to Israel, this slab of wall was removed by an unidentified European couple who shipped it out of Israel and later contacted Julien’s. For this, as with the Detroit mural, the auction house, which never directly participates in removal of Banksy works from original sites, has paperwork showing that the artworks were legally transferred from the owners of the property where they initially appeared to the new owners. So the steps leading up the sales have an official feel, even if they're not actually sanctioned by the artist.
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Auction sales often put artists in odd situations. Cady Noland, who sold the most expensive work by a living female artist in 2012, when a sculpture of hers brought in $6.6 million, has disowned slightly damaged works of hers that go to auction. Last year, artist Christopher Wool tried, to no avail, to identify who bought his painting Apocalypse Now at Christie’s for $26.4 million.
The Banksy situation, of course, is different for a few reasons: The artist didn’t make the street work to sell at all, and the general public has no idea who s/he really is. A year ago, news sites widely reported that the artist had been arrested and identified — he was alleged to be a Liverpool-born guy named Paul — but this turned out to be a hoax.
The “who is Banksy” mystery is part of the selling point for next week’s auction. Look closely at the paint can the boy holds in I Remember When All This Was Trees and you’ll see a handprint. Fingerprints are also barely visible. Are they Banksy’s?
“For him to leave a little clue like this is almost taunting the public,” says Michael Doyle, director of business development at Julien’s, who will be auctioneering next week. The auction house has not actually looked into identifying those fingerprints — that’s outside its purview. The artists at 555 Gallery apparently never did any forensic research when the mural was in their possession, either. But hypothetically, as Julien’s press release certainly implies, whoever purchases the 1,500-pound slab of wall could, maybe, also be buying the secret to the artist’s identity.