Five Banksy works in dispute and not for sale at Art Miami

An exhibition of murals created by the enigmatic artist Banksy will go on exhibit in Art Miami. The artist says the gallery has no right to sell the works, which were once on public walls and signs. The gallerist says he can do as he pleases.

12/03/2012 4:41 PM

12/04/2012 12:13 AM

Banksy is a London street artist who travels the world painting on walls, doors, street signs and just about any public place where a funny, clever image might offer some cutting commentary on the immediate surroundings — or simply elicit a smile.

The works are meant to be short-lived, site-specific and slightly mysterious. Banksy never signs his paintings, lest he admit to a crime — such as vandalism.

Because of the nature of Banksy’s works, they typically cannot be sold. And the artist, who rarely grants interviews, has said he likes it that way.

But as the art world descends on Miami this week, a New York gallery owner is about to change that.

Stephan Keszler of Southampton has shipped to Miami several large chunks of framed, cinder-block-and-stone walls adorned with Banksy’s works and removed from their original locations in Israel, England, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Keszler plans to show the works at CONTEXT Art Miami, a new offshoot of Art Miami — one of the oldest and largest fairs that run concurrently with Art Basel Miami Beach.

A preview of the five Banksy works is scheduled for Art Miami VIP card holders Tuesday night at CONTEXT, in Midtown at 3201 Northeast First Ave.

The exhibition, Banksy Out of CONTEXT, marks the first time the artist’s works will be shown as part of a major contemporary art fair, said Art Miami director Nick Korniloff.

Banksy declined to comment. But if the past is any indication, the artist is not pleased with the exhibition.

Last year, Keszler showed some of the Banksy works he’s bringing to Miami in New York, and he tried to sell them at prices ranging from $40,000 to $750,000.

Before the exhibition opened, though, the secretive artist issued a statement criticizing the gallery owner for removing the works from their contextual surroundings, and he suggested they were not authentic.

None of the works sold, and Keszler accused the artist of sabotaging the show.

This year, Banksy Out of CONTEXT appeared to be headed for a similar fate, except this time Keszler said he is prepared to confront the controversy.

The works to be presented at Art Miami are not for sale, he said. That adds another peculiar dimension to the exhibition, since art sales are at the core of the fair.

Keszler says Banksy is a hypocrite for taking artistic license to create his works on the property of others, but attempting to prevent the gallery owner from exercising his free will.

Though he has not spoken with Banksy, Keszler said he believes the exhibition is doing the artist a favor.

“I believe and I hope that Banksy, if he’s really honest to himself alone at home, he likes what we do,” Keszler said, “because we are preserving and we are salvaging his works, and we show his works, which were only made for a few people in Palestine or Bethlehem, and now 50,000 or 60,000 or 70,000 people will see this. So what is wrong about what we are doing?”

Marc Schiller, a friend of Banksy’s who runs woostercollective.com, a website dedicated to street art, said he finds plenty wrong. “This exhibition does not celebrate street art. It destroys it,” he wrote in an email. “By removing Banksy’s work from the street, you remove the context and significance of the work. In this way, the organizers have effectively ruined what makes it a piece of art.

“The real crime here is that showing these pieces in an environment such as an art fair ultimately legitimizes the removal of all street art,” Schiller said. “This will lead to the downfall of the street art movement that this exhibition crassly says it is celebrating.”

Much of the controversy surrounding the exhibition and sale of Banksy’s works began in the summer of 2011, when Keszler and Bankrobber Gallery in London presented two of the artist’s works, which were taken from Bethlehem in Israel and shipped to the Southampton Village Power Plant in New York.

Banksy fans, who are legion, criticized the gallery owners for taking the works from their original locations and trying to profit from art made for all to enjoy.

At the time of the New York exhibition, Banksy’s handling service, Pest Control, issued a statement to artnet.com — an online platform for buying, selling and researching art:

“We have warned Mr. Keszler of the serious implications of selling unauthenticated works but he seems not to care. We have no doubt that these works will come back to haunt Mr. Keszler.”

Korniloff, the Art Miami director, said Pest Control contacted the fair’s representatives and insisted they stop the Miami exhibition.

But Korniloff and Keszler are undeterred, and Korniloff hopes the exhibition will start a public conversation about the role of private collectors and the preservation of street art.

He said there have been numerous examples of Banksy’s works being destroyed, either painted over as an eyesore or removed along with the building or wall where the work once lived.

“Without private collectors like Mr. Keszler, many of these works would fall prey to the variables that exist when an artist creates on another’s property,” Korniloff said.

Two works scheduled to be shown at Art Miami will be starkly out of context in Miami. Both were taken from Bethlehem in the West Bank: Wet Dog, an image in white of a wet dog shaking itself, and Stop and Search, a lifesize stencil of a girl in a pink dress patting down a soldier.

Banksy created the works in 2007, one on the wall of a butcher shop and the other at a bus stop.

Keszler said he and Bankrobber gallery never removed the works from their original locations but rather salvaged them from eventual destruction.

In the case of Stop and Search and Wet Dog, he said, they bought the works from Palestinians who had already removed the works and left them in a stone mason’s yard when they failed to sell.

He said each of the works weighs 1,000 to 3,000 pounds, and that it took him and a collaborator several years and many thousands of dollars to salvage the pieces and ship them out of the Middle East.

The other works are on consignment from building owners who paid to have the walls with Banksy’s works removed, he said.

“We do not need his permission to do what he wants,” he added, “because it’s not owned by him. It’s made by him.”

Asked why the works being exhibited at Art Miami are not for sale, Keszler suggested his appreciation for them has increased.

“Let’s say it changed, the love for those works,’’ he said.

Keszler added that the Banksy works could go on sale again in the future, and he suggested that there’s a preferred buyer.

“I would be very, very happy,” he said, “if those works would come into a very important museum.”

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