Yesterday, Artnet Magazine reported on the controversy surrounding the decision by Keszler Gallery and Bankrobber Gallery to bring two Banksy stencils from Bethlehem to the Southampton Village Power Plant, where an exhibition of reconstituted street works and prints opened Aug. 20, 2011. Banksy fans argued that the artist intended the works for the West Bank and the galleries had no right to remove them. What’s more, only one of the seven works on view, Banksy, Laugh Now, 2002, originally a commission for a nightclub in Brighton, has been certified by Pest Control, Banksy’s authentication office, according to Keszler Gallery.
In an email today, Pest Control said that it has not authenticated any of the Banksy Street Art works in the exhibition. As a rule, Pest Control refuses to evaluate any Banksy works that have been “removed from their original context.” The Pest Control spokesperson did not know if Keszler Gallery or its collaborator, Bankrobber Gallery in London, had received permission from local building owners in Bethlehem to remove the works.
Ultimately, the office issued an admonishment to the gallery: “We have warned Mr. Keszler of the serious implications of selling unauthenticated works but he seems to not care. We have no doubt that these works will come back to haunt Mr. Keszler.”
So are the galleries worried? “Not in the slightest,” said Robin Barton, owner of the London-based Bankrobber Gallery. “The works are completely represented in timeline photography, and they appear on Banksy’s website. The evidence has to be bulletproof, if you’ll excuse the pun, to do something like this.”
Besides, the galleries did not themselves physically remove the works from their original sites as originally thought, Barton said. Rather, several years ago a group of Palestinian entrepreneurs paid the owners of the properties -- a local butcher in the case of Stop + Search and the county jurisdiction for Wet Dog, which was stenciled on a highway bus stop. According to Barton, the Palestinian owners excavated the works and had intended to sell them on eBay. Instead, they ended up abandoning them three years ago in a stone mason’s yard (outside of public view) when they realized it would be too difficult to move the two-and-a-half-ton works across tightly monitored border controls. “The whole project just overwhelmed them,” Barton said.
“In a perfect world, as per the wishes of the artist, the works would always be at their purest when they remain site-specific, but the harsh reality is that very few pieces survive,” added Keszler. “They would have absolutely been destroyed in Palestine.
"The few pieces that do survive," Keszler said via email, "represent a small but significant record of the artist's early output, and that in a world where our physical exposure to such works is restricted to staring at the myriad screens and gadgets that increasingly fill our lives, the ability to offer people the opportunity to get up close and personal to such a collection of genuine Banksy artworks in a sympathetic environment is something to be celebrated rather than criticized. To be able to walk freely around the monumental Stop + Search, exploring its bullet-scarred surfaces and tiled butcher-shop interior has been made possible only as a result of painstaking restoration and the kind of logistical vigor that we at the Keszler Gallery pride ourselves on."
The galleries tracked down the works (as documented in this video), purchased them from the unidentified owners, shipped them to Israel and then to a fresco specialist in Britain to remove excess dirt. Now, “three years in the planning and many thousands of dollars later,” Keszler said, “we feel vindicated in our efforts.”
The galleries are going ahead with plans to sell the works, which range in price from $40,000 for Slow Progress, 2008, a stencil of a turtle painted on a condemned house in New Orleans, to $750,000 for the one authenticated work. As for the West Bank work, Wet Dog is going for $420,000 and Stop and Search is priced at $450,000.
So, is it safe to assume that the galleries have never been acquainted with Banksy? “Yes,” Barton said. “That’s very safe to assume.”