'The Stealing Banksy?' exhibition has been generating controversy ever since it was first announced. The Sincura Group, which removed the street pieces formally by Banksy from their original locations and organized the exhibition and auction, defended its decision to remove Banksy’s art and sell it by saying that it only did so after being approached by building owners to remove the artwork illegally painted on their premises. In a statement, The Sincura Group stated: “We have never approached anyone to remove any artwork or encouraged its removal. We do not own the pieces of art. To date we have made no financial gain from the sale of any street art… We encourage the owners to make charitable donations to the community from where the artwork originated.“ It claimed that some of these works have been preserved by their removal, such as the ‘Girl with a Balloon’. The rest have been removed at the owners’ request. Some owners simply wanted to gain profit; others wanted the works removed to avoid the risk of having a grade 2 listing applied to their premises.
The exhibition went on display at London's ME Hotel on April 24 and ended with an auction for 9 works by Banksy on April 27. Among the listed works are, for example, famous Liverpool Rat and No Ball Games. The Sincura Group, however, has decided not to hold a public auction. Instead, the pieces were to be sold through an online auction and sealed bids. There are still no published results. However, as stated on the stealingbanky.com, a statement will appear on May 10th.
The Sincura Group has previously come under criticism for selling Banksy's Slave Labour work for more than £750,000, after it was removed from a wall in London. Despite naming the recent exhibition "Stealing Banksy”, The Sincura Group insists it does not steal art. The controversial project allegedly aims to explore the social, legal and moral issues surrounding the sale of street art. Nonetheless, the exhibition has been condemned by the public and the artist himself who posted a message on Banksy.co.uk saying: "The Stealing Banksy exhibition taking place in London this weekend has been organized without the involvement or consent of the artist. Banksy would like to make it clear - this show has nothing to do with me and I think it's disgusting people are allowed to go displaying art on walls without getting permission.”
Stealing Banksy? Is another case that raised questions about the ownership of street art pieces. Somehow, we do not get the impression that The Sincura Group is willing to engage in this debate although it positions itself as the subject that wants to see debate about the questionable market for street art works. Leaving aside the ethical and moral issues regarding the removal of the work from its local and social context, the main question is who has the ownership and control over street art? While the community considers murals as a gift to them, they are nonetheless usually painted on privately owned buildings. So, should the building's owner have an absolute control over the works? Or should the artistic work be defined as a public good because of its cultural significance to the community? In this case, it needs to be protected by preservation laws that, however, don't apply to non-historic buildings or newer works of art. Moreover, who will determine which work deserves to be protected? And what about the case when the work is painted over? When we add to all of this the fact that street art is still considered to be an illegal activity, more problems arise.#
In the Stealing Banksy? case one thing is certain. The art is taken out of a public place and sold to private collectors. It is out of the question that this project preserves street pieces for the public, as The Sincura Group claims to be the case with some of the works. Banksy’s artwork is taken from public spaces in order to adorn one’s private space. End of story.