Banksy made a mark on a wall. Someone gouged it out again, and secretly shipped the British street artist’s mural, Slave Labour, across the ocean and into a Miami auction room, with expectations of a $500,000 sale. The Banksy caper is unusual among art thefts, in that no one is quite sure who has been robbed. The mural, painted on the side of a London discount store, had no clear legal owner, though the consensus is that the mysterious consignor behind Saturday’s aborted auction sale was awaiting an evil payday. Murals generally have a rough time of it, exposed as they are to the elements, passersby and the hazards of being painted on an immovable wall. Even indoor ones aren’t safe from misadventures, as these examples show:
The Norwegian government is considering the fate of two gigantic Picasso murals, damaged when the Oslo modernist buildings to which they are attached were damaged during the car-bomb part of Anders Breivik’s murderous spree in 2011. One option is to move the murals, but since they are three storeys high and rendered in a special concrete, the cost would be huge.
In October, an art activist named Vladimir Umanets “tagged” a corner of a Mark Rothko mural at Tate Modern in London with his own name and a reference to “Yellowism” – a movement Umanets associates with Marcel Duchamp, who famously defaced a copy of the Mona Lisa. The mural was one of several Rothko made in 1958 for New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant, a commission that figures in John Logan’s recent play about Rothko, Red.
In August, a 19th-century head-and-shoulder mural painting of Jesus in a small Spanish church was ruined by an amateur restorer who made the Saviour look like a humanoid hedgehog. Her work quickly became an Internet meme, and is now a tourist attraction in her home town of Borja, in northeastern Spain.
New York firefighters called to extinguish a blaze at Graydon Carter’s celebrity hang-out Waverly Inn in June inadvertently destroyed an Edward Sorel mural inside the restaurant. Sorel calmly informed the online paper DNAinfo.com that the mural was “a reproduction of my drawings which they can easily reproduce again from their digital files.”
A huge reproduction of Hokusai’s woodblock print Great Wave off Kanagawa, installed on a gritty Victorian brick building in London’s Camberwell district in 1998, was damaged in April by an explosion in a neighbouring structure. The community is raising funds to restore the lower part of the wave that was scorched off the brick.
Diego Rivera painted his largest mural in San Francisco in 1940, expecting that it would be installed in a grand new library at the City College of San Francisco. But the library was never built, and the five panels of Rivera’s Pan American Unity went into storage for two decades, before moving into a campus theatre lobby. The college is looking for a more suitable home for the work, which covers a whopping 151 square metres.
The great survivor among murals is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, though the painting’s reputation may be the only thing to have persisted intact. The mural has been damaged by moisture, Napoleon’s invading troops, an aerial bomb during the Second World War, and generations of bumbling restorers, possibly including the last bunch who worked on it in the late 1990s.