Banksy's Nazi Painting Charity Auction Fell Apart

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The highly-publicized auction of an original Banksy work from his New York period -- with the proceeds going to charity -- fell apart at the last minute thanks to a shady buyer. But some scorned collectors who lost are raising new questions about the smoke and mirrors process through which the sale went down. 

The anonymous street artist's month-long New York residency was filled with shady back-handed transactions. Some deals were orchestrated by Banksy himself for the good of the general public. Some deals were carried out by the general public, Banksy be damned. 

But Banksy's most expensive New York piece is now shrouded in controversy. "The Banality of the Banality of Evil," sold for $615,000 at auction recently with all of the proceeds going to Housing Works, the New York-based charity. The painting's origin story was so quintessentially Banksy: he reportedly purchased a landscape painting from a Housing Works-run thrift shop, added a nazi to the painting's foreground and signed it. Now it was a Banksy original, worth potentially over half a million dollars. He gave the original work back to Housing Works through an anonymous broker, and informed the charity of what they truly possessed. The auction winner, known only as his screen name, "gorpetri," backed out before the sale could go through.

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Housing Works held an emergency auction with the few high-priced bidders who were originally outbid by the deadbeat defaulter. As The New York Times points out, the site Housing Works used for the auction, Bidding for Good, normally doesn't handle such high-priced items, so their authentication system only requires a screen name and a credit card number. Housing Works won't disclose how much Banksy's work sold for the second time around. "We are still looking into why he defaulted, and we reserve the right to sort of see what we're going to do with it," Matthew Bernardo, Housing Works' chief development officer, told Talking Points Memo. "But we were really looking to close the transaction so we could put the money to use."

But some bidders contacted for the second auction are raising suspicions about the histrionics surrounding the painting's convoluted and messy sale. Rachel Hirschfeld, who acted as a broker for an anonymous collector, and Wil Emling described their suspicions to The New York Times

Ms. Hirschfeld wondered if perhaps Banksy himself had bid up the sale, and Mr. Emling suspected that there was more to the painting’s origin story.

He said that Mr. Bernardo told him that Housing Works knew four weeks in advance that Banksy was going to donate a painting, and that Banksy’s people specifically requested a landscape because the artist was going to “put a monster in it.”

Hirschfield was outbid in the first auction by $200 at the very last minute. This time, she was asked to fax Housing Works a paper with her offer, which was close to half a million dollars, which she found suspicious. "I think they used my fax to bid that person higher," she told the Times. Emling was uncomfortable with how Housing Works handled the second auction: "It’s just odd to be told I have 24 hours to wire any amount and first person that does gets the painting," he said.

But Bernardo promises everything about the painting, and the auctions was on the up and up. "It was one of the largest gifts Housing Works has ever received and we're thrilled," Bernardo told Talking Points Memo. "We were happy with the sale," he said to the Times, "we were happy with the process which we closed with, and it’s at a very good home."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.