In a sign of just how popular British street artist "Banksy" has become, one of his works has been ripped off the side of a London building, put up for sale at a Miami auction house and prompted an international effort to get it back.
"We feel very strongly as a community that this is a piece of art that was given freely to us and we don't think it should be taken away secretively and sold for significant profit," said Alan Strickland, a local councillor who is leading the charge to reclaim the drawing, which has included asking the mayor of Miami to stop the sale.
Mr. Strickland added that he has received support from around the world from people who believe that "even if, legally, somebody can sell it, that just isn't right."
The reclusive Banksy has become famous over the years for his cheeky pieces – among them a depiction of Mona Lisa wearing headphones and carrying a rocket launcher and a monkey lugging a sandwich board that reads: "Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge."
A documentary of him was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 and one of his works sold for more than $1-million at a charity auction.
The controversy in London started last May when a Banksy drawing appeared on the side of a discount store in Haringey, a working-class part of London that was hit hard by rioting in 2011. Called Slave Labour, the black-and-white mural depicts a boy hunched over a sewing machine making small Union Jacks, which are in bright colours. The mural became so popular, the Haringey council put up street signs to help tourists find it.
The work vanished last Saturday after someone chipped it off the building, leaving a gaping indentation. Within days it popped up for sale at Fine Art Auctions in Miami and it is slated to be auctioned this Saturday for an estimated price of between $500,000 and $700,000.
Who took it remains a mystery. The store denies any involvement and the owner of the building has not commented. Banksy has remained silent as well, although he has deplored other sales of his artwork.
The gallery insists the work is being sold by a well-known collector, who is also selling another Banksy drawing, a spray painting called Wet Dog that was taken off a wall in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. "Fine Art Auctions Miami has done all necessary due diligence and unfortunately is not able to provide any [further] information or details," the firm said in a statement, adding that there is nothing to suggest anything illegal has occurred.
But Mr. Strickland and other members of Haringey council have pulled out all the stops to block the sale and bring the drawing back. They have encouraged residents and supporters to flood the Miami gallery with e-mails. They have asked for help from the Arts Council of England, which regulates the export of cultural objects. And they have implored the gallery owner, Frederic Thut, to hand it over.
"When the people of Haringey realized the mural had been taken from them this week, they were angry and disgusted that someone could try to make money from a piece of community art," the council said in an open letter to Mr. Thut sent Wednesday. "We understand that there may be nothing illegal in the way this artwork was quietly removed from our streets and put up for auction by you in Miami. But for you to allow it to be sold for huge profit in this way would be morally wrong." Mr. Thut has yet to reply.
This isn't the first time a Banksy piece has caused controversy. New York collector Stephen Keszler tried to sell some Banksy works for up to $750,000 apiece in 2011 but ran into a storm of protest from the artist's supporters and from Banksy. The artist issued a statement condemning the sale and suggesting the works were not authentic. Mr. Keszler has denied any involvement in the Slave Labour sale.
Mr. Strickland has ruled out buying the drawing at the auction. "What we don't want to do as a community is feel that we are being held to ransom," he said. "I have tried to appeal to [the gallery's] ethics. But I'm not sure it has worked."