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Friday, February 22, 2013 - 5:25pm
When a street artist paints a mural on a wall, who owns the artwork?
By Saturday evening, the answer could be "someone else," at least in the case of "Slave Labour," a work of renowned artist Banksy.
The mural showed up on the wall of a Poundland discount store in North London's Haringey neighborhood during the queen's Jubilee last May. It depicts a young boy sewing British flags and was thought to be a commentary on sweatshop labor, something that hit home in the working class neighborhood.
"It represents the struggle of the community in general," one resident told the BBC.
And it was something positive for locals.
"I felt a twinge of pride that something other than cheap tat was drawing people to our high road.
"It brought much-needed positive attention to Wood Green instead of the usual ugly image often spread in the news and on Twitter," Rachella Sinclair wrote in Tottenham & Wood Green Journal.
But last week, residents noticed some work was being done around the 4-foot-by-5-foot mural, with scaffolding and a tarpaulin put up.
"This morning I had a sneaky look under said tarpaulin to find it had been removed," wrote blogger AntK on Harringay Online. "I spoke to the guy rendering the wall and he said that after repeated attempts to gouge it out, the owner of the Poundland building had decided to take steps to 'preserve' it."
The preservation seems to have taken the piece to Miami, where "Slave Labour" has turned up in the catalog of Fine Art Auctions in Miami. It's expected to go under the gavel on Saturday with a price range of $500,000 to $700,000 as part of a collection of "Modern, Contemporary and Street Art."
That has the North London locals angry.
"Banksy gave that piece of art to our community," local council member Alan Strickland is quoted as saying by the BBC. He called the artwork a "piece of art that was given freely has been taken away from them."
Not so, said the Miami auctioneer.
"Some people in England are complaining that the work had been stolen. That's absolutely incorrect because the work was painted on a private wall and the owner of a private wall can do whatever he wants with his own wall," Frederick Thut said in a BBC interview.
"We take a lot of care with our consignors, who they are, what they do, and if there's any illegality we will not touch it. Everything is checked out 150%," the Guardian quoted Thut as saying.
For its part Poundland tweeted that it is not responsible for removing the art .
"We do not own the building. It is not ours to remove," the store tweeted.
"We've been unable to reach landlord's agents today but would like to reiterate that we in no way condone the artwork removal," another tweet said.
Banksy himself is known to be reclusive and has made no official comment on the controversy.
But on the frequently asked questions page of his website, he poses the question: "What do you think about the auction houses selling street art?"
He quotes artist Henri Matisse for his answer: "I was very embarrassed when my canvases began to fetch high prices, I saw myself condemned to a future of painting nothing but masterpieces."