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VERMIN ON THE LOOSE
by Simon Todd
 
For the London art scene, Sept. 27, 2008 -- the date for the upcoming contemporary art sale at the Lyon & Turnbull auction house -- promises to be particularly controversial, and on two separate fronts. The Scotland-based Lyon & Turnbull (est. 1826), which launched a joint marketing campaign with Philadelphia’s Freeman’s Auctioneers in 2000, made a splash with its inaugural London sale this January, held at the Royal Academy and featuring British artwork of the ‘60s from the Deloitte Art Collection. Among the notable lots was John Hoyland’s large acrylic abstraction, 17.7.69, which sold for £155,000, well above its presale estimate of £20,000-£30,000 -- a feat that did its bit to reposition the art of Swinging London as part of today’s Cool Britannia.

The forthcoming Sept. 27 auction, however, marks a coup of another sort. To be held at the Soanian Church opposite Regent’s Park, the Lyon & Turnbull contemporary sale consists of works belonging to the Colony Room Club, an iconic, 60-year-old establishment located on Dean Street in London’s Soho neighborhood. Founded by Muriel Belcher, the Colony Room Club has the cachet of having served as home away from home to everyone from Francis Bacon (biographer Michael Peppiatt writes that "at unproductive moments in his career he spent more time at [Belcher’s] club than at Reece Mews [his home and studio]") to Damien Hirst. The auction promises works by Patrick Caulfield, Mark Quinn, and the late Michael Andrews -- whose mural (est. £20,000-£30,000) was accepted as payment for an unpaid bar bill -- among others.

The Colony Room Club is not officially closing but moving at the end of 2008, due to lease issues. The auction of works from this once-semi-public collection thus raises the question of why the proprietors are selling this trove at all. The thought of the Club’s history passing into private hands provokes more than a little consternation in art circles, given the storied heritage.

Yet this hand-wringing promises to be dwarfed by a second, more intriguing controversy circling the contemporary sale. The Sept. 27 auction contains several "street art" works by the irrepressible British graffiti artist Banksy, including a multi-panel painting done on the side of a van. Though Banksy may have been cavalier about ownership of his Street Art, auction houses are more careful with such issues. In the last year or so, works by the "the fastest growing artist ever," as one of his dealers described him, have been authenticated for auction by a a provenance committee called Pest Control, managed by Holly Cushing, who was associated with Banksy’s Soho dealer, Steve Lazarides, and now consults directly with the artist.

Pest Control’s presence was firmly established by an auction in June at Dreweatts, London, that had "Pest Control" and "Droit de Suite" stamped on every lot. Precedent seems to work, and the group has quickly developed relations throughout the market. Many collectors and dealers won’t proceed without a Pest Control certificate.

There are, however, problems; Pest Control does not conduct business in the most transparent manner. Indeed, MI5 has more information about itself on its website than Pest Control does on its own, and no direct contact routes are listed. All one can do is submit a work via the website, which is often initially rejected, while street pieces are automatically rejected, as are "gifts," with the phrase "not originally intended for resale."

Since Pest Control refuses to give its stamp of approval to graffiti works executed in the street, certifying only items that come from the artist’s studio, some uncertainty surrounds Street Art pieces that were sold at auction, some for considerable amounts, prior to the formation of the authenticity committee. (Banksy’s auction record is $1,870,000, set at Sotheby’s "Red" sale in February 2008, for an actual Damian Hirst painting that Banksy "defaced" with a stencil of a maid sweeping dust beneath the edge of the painting.)

In light of all this, a new entity named "Vermin" has been formed to provide certification for Banksy street works. Vermin plans to use a panel of experts and a special online register as part of its effort to become the go-to source for information about Banksy’s street pieces. What’s more, for its debut, so to speak, Vermin is working with Lyon & Turnbull to certify Banksy works in its contemporary sale.

Earlier this summer, I sat down to discuss these issues with Ben Hanly, head of contemporary art at Lyon & Turnbull; Graham Snow, consultant to the auctioneers who is organizing exhibitions for the firm; Michael Wojas, charismatic proprietor of the Colony Room Club; and "Vermin," a representative of the new street art authentication entity, who wished to remain anonymous.

Simon Todd: Ben, this is your second large contemporary auction down in London. Are you Scots here to stay?

Ben Hanly: Absolutely. The Deloitte Art Collection sale at Royal Academy has proved that there is room for another major auction house in London. Although Lyon & Turnbull is a relatively fresh player in the contemporary market, the decision has been made to move the contemporary department to London and we are coming in with an altogether different marketing strategy compared to the larger auction houses.

Lyon & Turnbull prides itself on our customer service and providing a much more bespoke and niche service to our clients than our competitors. This kind of service has to a certain extent been lost by such huge organizations; unless you have a piece over £1,000,000, you are just a number within the system. It is forgotten that if a client comes to an auction house with £10,000 drawing, they may also have a £1,000,000 painting.

Graham Snow: I think the clients are the most important thing, and we have relations all across the art world, including with artists. Earlier this year we launched a new program of "Signature Exhibitions" with a show of works by Tess Jaray, an established British artist since the ‘60s. This is an artist that has not had great auction success, but we view her as a figure to invest in for the future. And this September we are holding an exhibition of Paul Huxley’s work, an artist in a similar position.

BH: The fundamental element to these exhibitions is one of building integrity within the art world; we are not trying to be a gallery, but are hoping these shows will act as a fresh platform for interaction.

ST: Many people are very upset about the Colony Room closing at Dean Street and various rumors; perhaps we could satisfy these now?

Michael Wojas: There has been a futile, baseless campaign, a "Kill the Colony Room" campaign. The Colony is moving from its premises at Dean Street for various reasons; there is a planned redevelopment in Soho that is very much pro-corporate businesses rather than individual traders. More specifically, 41 Dean Street is an old building whose owners, with council support, are determined to imminently develop. It would be enormously costly to fight it with little chance of success.

BH: L&T are hugely proud to be associated with the Colony Room. The sale is sure to be emotional and controversial as it marks the passing of a legend. But it provides London with a chance to buy a piece of the capital’s cultural bohemia.

ST: I shall definitely miss the place myself.

MW: Of course I’ll miss it; I spend more time here than I do at home. I have been here for 27 years, but perhaps I am turning into a bit of a polar bear in a zoo. I took over from Ian Board in 1994 and I constantly have to come up with ideas to keep my relationship with the club going. The Colony Room is certainly part of my identity and I do not want to dismiss the passed. But it needs to move into the 21st century -- otherwise I might as well stick up a red rope and charge people £5 to look at it with a glass of beer on the way out.

GS: I have a long continuity with the place. I was first taken there in 1969 by the sculptor Hubert Dalwood, and on this visit I met Craigie Aitchison. Indeed, I met so many extraordinary people for the first at the Colony Room who have now passed into history -- Christopher Isherwood, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Smart, Michael Andrews and Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon and I shared a birthday and twice we had a party at Eleanor Sewell’s. I spent a lot time with the photographer John Deacon; he was the most unattractive person possible, but also the most fascinating.

It has always been an institution and we will do it justice. For the private view evening, the venue will be transformed into the Colony Room bar. All members and artists associated with the club will be invited. It will be the ticket to have.

ST: Michael, what are your plans for the future?

MW: Dean Street was becoming untenable due to the small size of the room; the plan is to find new premises nearby. We are also considering incorporating the Colony Room into some already existing larger space, to enable it to move more into the 21st century; providing more music and a smoking space (the smoking ban has greatly affected the situation). But before we leave, we are planning a 60th party at the end of year at the Jamm Club, London, possibly featuring musical acts including Alabama 3, the Bloc Heads and Lisa Stansfield.

ST: Vermin, I understand that you are providing "certification" for five of the Banksy street works in Lyon & Turnbull’s September auction. How do you see yourself functioning alongside the Pest Control body?

Vermin: We are an entirely independent body acting in the interest of the collector. What we will be offering is a "professional opinion" authentication based on our board’s knowledge of these early works. This, coupled with rigorous research will enable us to offer "Vermin certification" to pieces that would otherwise be rendered effectively worthless within the wider art market. As we are in no way connected to the artist, we are uniquely placed to offer this form of authentication in the certain knowledge that we are not jeopardizing the artist by exposing him to possible prosecution for vandalism.

ST: Ben, what is the Lyon & Turnbull attitude to Pest Control?

BH: We are concerned with Pest Control’s refusal to deal with street works, but its policies have created a situation whereby collectors want and perceive they need certificates of authentication before buying anything. There is a significant body of Banksy street pieces on the market, and these are the most important works Banksy ever created -- they are the seminal pieces and they exist -- this is a fact.

ST: So the process of certification will provide a route for previous collectors of Banksy’s street works to continue collecting?

V: Indeed. It will validate the pieces they already have as we will automatically issue these pieces retrospective certificates, pending their meeting the necessary criteria. Hopefully, restoring faith in their initial investment and encouraging them to build on their collection, secure in the knowledge that at any point in the future they know the works will be recognized and can be handled by Lyon & Turnbull. Further, the pieces will then be placed on Vermin’s "Salvaged + Saved" register.

BH: Vermin fills the gap in the market that Pest Control has left open. All the works that Lyon & Turnbull handle have been legally saved or salvaged and all have been bought or traded via top end galleries and auction houses with full provenance.

ST: How will the "Salvage + Saved" register be organized?

V: Anyone who has bought or collected street pieces in the past may send in the images, which will then be put in front of our board, formed of a panel of established Banksy dealers who have been dealing since the early days in secondary-market Banksys. We will then look at the piece from all angles, research it and, as long as each work is then assessed on its own merit, if sufficient criteria are met (through "time line" documentation, publications and photographic evidence), the work is placed on a "Salvaged + Saved" register for a period of one month, during which any counterclaims against the piece can be investigated. At the end of this period, if no valid counterclaim to ownership/authorship is revealed, the piece is issued with a "Vermin Certificate." The register will be on an open resource website for other people and organizations to use in the future for both commercial and educational purposes.

ST: So the "Vermin Certificate" is designed to be universal?

V: What certification does is grant the piece its place in history without the artist "having to own up to it," but it does not rely on the artist to authenticate it. This certificate, along with the work’s inclusion on the "Salvaged + Saved" register will help protect against future and past fakes, which have become a problem which has grown exponentially with the artist’s market worth.

BH: We have a duty of due diligence to our clients to advise them professionally and to sell their works for the optimum price, Street Art included. All Vermin-approved works have full provenance listed. However, L&T will naturally also deal with Pest Control on the works which they choose to endorse.

ST: A lot of people are not so concerned with the rights of street artists over their works.

V: There is no concern with the artist’s rights in this situation. If he or she sprays or paints, leaving works out in the street, they become part of the public domain. Only the private owner of the surface it is painted on has rights over it. If that party then chooses to sell the piece and providing receiptage and reliable "time line" photographic evidence is supplied, then it gives its own validation -- something the artist seems unwilling or unable to do. It should also be pointed out that in this instance the artist has gained considerable revenue and acknowledgement through his prints and publications, making him a household name. To then deny the works and his earliest collectors seems strangely at odds with the spirit of the street.

Vermin’s primary aim remains to provide a necessary and valuable record of all the pieces that have survived the streets and by right of ownership and visual integrity deserve to be recognized in their own right.

ST: So your general attitude is that street pieces are fair game?

V: Street pieces are more than fair game; they are the most important of his [Banksy’s] output because his works started on the street. That is what he is known for, and any purist collector who understands the works’ intention and integrity cannot help but feel frustration at being denied the opportunity to convert and collect such work.

Sadly, while much of the artist’s early work has found its way into our city’s collective consciousness, relatively few pieces have survived. Those that have should be recognized for the iconic foundation stones they are.

Far from being the work of mindless vandalism, they mark the starting point of a movement that both satirizes and accuses our brand-obsessed society using subversive wit and street cunning. They represent "brandalism" in its purest form.


SIMON TODD is a consultant for Artnet in London.