I’m the Accidental Owner of a Banksy

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Thanks, I think...Photo: Banksy

“Are you going to be rich?” That is the first question people ask me upon finding out that in the wee morning hours of October 17, the famed street artist Banksy painted a mural on the side of a building my family owns in East Williamsburg.

The truth is — at the end of an exhausting day filled with phone calls talking to lawyers, security companies, art experts, and reporters — I have no idea what it means. There is no rule book when one of the most famous artists in the world decides to drop his work into your life.

The painting on our building was the seventeenth piece of art to appear during Banksy's monthlong tour in New York. Each day, the shadowy London-based graffiti artist leaves behind a work of art somewhere in city. The two prior days had witnessed the appearance of a small silhouette of the Twin Towers spray-painted on a wall in Tribeca and a sculpture of an expectant Ronald McDonald getting his shoes shined by a real human being in the South Bronx. 

Mayor Bloomberg has promised to paint over any Banksy pieces on city property and has labeled him a vandal. “You running up to somebody’s property or public property and defacing it is not my definition of art,” he told the reporters on Wednesday. The NYPD has promised to charge him — if they can find him. 

I had been following the Banksy phenomenon with mild interest (my husband is a fan), but had no idea what was in store for our family when my father texted me yesterday morning, "Banksy painted our building last night and a huge crowd is forming. What should we do?"

On the side of the old brick building that houses a thriving optical business, there are now two geishas, one with an umbrella, strolling over a "bridge" formed by one of the basement window arches. At the bottom of the arch is a spreading tree. It is beautiful.  But whether we like it or not, my sisters, father, and I have suddenly found ourselves in the position of being responsible for this notable piece of public art.

Should we preserve it immediately? Do we have a public duty to do so? How does one preserve a piece of art like this? How do we control the crowds with gawkers and fans of the elusive artist, many of them foreign tourists, who were suddenly standing outside the building? Will it make us money?

The advice came fast and furious. “Don’t tell people who you are,” a neighbor told me on the street. “They’ll try and kill you.”  “Put up plexiglass,” another told me. 

By late morning, a crowd of almost 500 people had gathered. When another tagger tried to cover over Banksy’s work, the crowd attacked him and cleaned up the damage to the painting. The whole incident was captured in real time by the news media. 

So we hired a security guard to stand outside and look after the artwork.

“Call the police, call your local councilman,” a local prosecutor told me. “They have a duty to protect this.” But calls to the local police precinct went unanswered. The same thing with our city council member. 

We hired two more security people for overnight. Pippa Loengard, assistant director of the Kernochan Center for Law, Media, and the Arts at Columbia Law School, generously offered to take our plight to the the art law committee of the city bar and see if anyone could recommend a preservation expert.

It's hard to know what the future holds. In England, where many of his pieces survive, buildings have gained value and local governments take great pride in his work. As the cult of Banksy grows, that could mean tour groups coming around to look at the painting. It is hard for our family to envision busloads of tourists being dropped off at our front door every day. But it is a possibility.

It's a new day. No. 18 will soon come to light, and the crowds may fade away, but No. 17 will forever be ours.