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Keszler & Banksy

by Rachel Corbett
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Stephan Keszler, the Southampton art dealer whose gallery salvaged a pair of three-ton concrete Banksy street works from the West Bank city of Bethlehem, and took five other Street Art works from New Orleans, Los Angeles and England on consignment, says that public disapproval from the anonymous artist’s authentication arm, Pest Control, has sabotaged the works’ reputation and, so far, his ability to sell them. Artnet Magazine reported on the Keszler Gallery exhibition and the surrounding controversy six weeks ago. 

As a rule, Pest Control never authenticates Banksy street works, claiming that the artist wants these stencil paintings to remain in their original context. Banksy has admitted, however, that this policy is also designed to avoid implicating him in criminal activity. Authenticating his Street Art, Banksy said in an interview, would be like “a signed confession on letterhead.”
Pest Control  previously told Artnet that it had “warned Mr. Keszler about the serious implications of selling unauthenticated works,” a claim Keszler adamantly denies. While he and his collaborator, Robin Barton of London’s Bankrobber Gallery, knew the policy on street certification before acquiring the works, he said he never received any direct warning. “We do not know why Pest Control is releasing self-penned ‘admonishments’ about our exhibition and the artwork,” Keszler said, unless it is designed “to manipulate the marketing of the street works or as an attempt to damage the gallery’s reputation.”

It also might be because the Keszler Gallery show is the first exhibition of Banksy street works on this scale. Bankrobber and Keszler spent substantial sums transporting and restoring the Bethlehem works (the galleries declined to be more specific as to their expenses), and also paid for the installation of plumbing and electricity at the Southampton Power Plant where the controversial exhibition was held in August. Now, all seven works are still for sale, and Pest Control’s criticism of the galleries has resulted in the cancellation of an exhibition planned for Art Basel Miami Beach, Dec. 1-4, 2011, and at least one collector backing out of a deal after the invoice had been sent, Keszler said. That collector, according to Keszler, admitted that he “knew they were not fakes,” but said he couldn’t go ahead with the purchase because “it’s almost impossible to re-sell them with this stigma on them.”

Indeed, after Pest Control formed in 2008, it became difficult for collectors to re-sell Banksy street works at all. Since then, the major auction houses have declined to accept Banksy works for auction without Pest Control certification. “We will not sell anything removed from the street because it’s something the artist isn’t happy with, so we try to abide by the wishes of the artist,” said Christie’s London postwar and contemporary art specialist Lock Kresler. “Pest Control is the sole governing authority; it’s the mouthpiece of the artist.”

Today, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury sell only signed prints, canvases and editions from the artist’s studio. “We’ve had to turn away quite a number of works” that were straight from the street, without the artist's authorization, the auction expert said.

It’s a policy that some collectors are adopting as well. “I would never buy an art work taken from the street -- that’s like stealing a gift given to others,” said New Zealand-based Banksy collector George Shaw, who organized the current urban-art exhibition “Oi You!,” Sept. 23-Oct. 24, 2011, which displays Shaw’s collection of Banksy canvases and prints. “If Pest Control doesn’t take that stance, then every piece of artwork that goes up on the street is fair game, and for what? For greed. I find that totally and utterly abhorrent.”

Others, however, argue that Pest Control has outsized power over the Banksy market. “It can take months and months to get certification because they’re not the most efficient, and also they know who you are,” said Simon Todd, an Artnet consultant in London who has written about Pest Control in the past. “So dealers often use friends to make applications just so Pest Control doesn’t know it’s them. They seem to have an active policy of discouraging dealers’ buying and selling.”

And Pest Control’s refusal to authenticate five Banksy street works auctioned at Lyon & Turnbull in 2008 undoubtedly had something to do with the lots’ failure to sell. “Banksy prefers street work to remain in situ, and building owners tend to become irate when their doors go missing because of a stencil,” they said in statement at the time.

“Pest Control should stop interjecting in the market,” added Keszler, and “Banksy needs to either cease painting on other people’s private property or at least let the fate of those works be decided by their legal owners.” As for collectors’ concerns about fakes, Keszler said he can prove authenticity himself. He has documentation from building owners, photography of the original walls, images of works from Banksy’s website and a video of the transportation and reconstruction process of the Bethlehem stencils.

In the past, sales have been mixed for works without certification. In 2009, a collector purchased Banksy’s Gallery Attendant stencil from Keszler for a mid-six figures without the Pest Control stamp of approval. On the other hand, that same year, two young collectors from London spent £30,000 excavating a three-ton concrete wall painted with a Banksy stencil of a punk rocker reading instructions for assembling a box of IKEA furniture. They reportedly hoped to sell it for £500,000, but the work remains in inventory.

In June, the pair displayed it on a Channel 4 appraisal show, where they received an offer of £75,000 from London antiques dealer Andrew Lamberty and, later, one for £240,000 from art and design dealer Jeffrey Salmon, but turned both parties down. (Salmon posted on his Twitter that, after the show, “The Banksy boys tried to contact me, but I told them where to get off.”) Now, Keszler Gallery has the work listed for $700,000.

(Street Art works aside, the market for Banksy seems vigorous, a remarkable development for an artist who first became known for a prank -- sneaking his work into museums. Since 2004, more than 800 Banksy paintings, sculptures and prints have been put on the block, with a high price of almost $1.8 million. This week in London alone, 15 Banksy works are going up for sale, ranging from a print in an edition of 750 that sold at Drewatt's on Monday for more than $5,700 to a fiberglass statue of Michelangelo's David wearing a bulletproof vest that Sotheby's London has estimated to sell for as much as $280,000.)

Both Keszler and Bankrobber emphasized that they never physically removed any of the works from their original walls. In the case of the Bethlehem stencils, two Palestinian locals had already cut them out of their initial locations and left them lying in an empty lot when they couldn’t sell them. The other works in the exhibition were acquired by Keszler and Bankrobber after building owners contacted the galleries and arranged a consignment agreement for the works that they’d already removed or planned to have removed either way, Keszler said. (He declined to disclose the terms of these contracts, but said the galleries receive less than half of the proceeds.)

Despite all the trouble, Keszler said he still has interest from collectors and is confident he’ll sell the works. In fact, he’s considering raising the price of the two West Bank stencils that he owns outright, Stop and Search, 2007, and Wet Dog, 2007, from $450,000 and $420,000, respectively, to about $650,000 each now that they’ve garnered so much attention. “I know the Bethlehem pieces and the others will be worth more and more over the years,” he said. “Stop and Search for $450 is a joke -- it’s a bargain.”

In the meantime, Keszler says he would like to lend the works to major museums and has had an offer to show them at “the most famous art gallery” in Istanbul. “Now we’re the ones getting invited and don’t have to pay,” he said. Worst-case scenario, he’ll be stuck with them, which maybe, he said lightly, wouldn’t be so bad. “I love Banksy and these are, in my opinion, very emotional and important pieces, his most important yet,” he said. “I’m happy to have them.”

RACHEL CORBETT is news editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email