How to Sell a (Stolen) Banksy: Chris Thompson’s Art World Nightmare

The documentary How to Sell a Banksy chronicles one man’s journey to move a Banksy artwork he nicked off the streets of London.

03.16.15 6:27 PM ET

On a drizzly East London night in 2005, Chris Thompson took down a handful of beers with two close friends at a local pub. The city had recently been filled with the buzz of Banksy, the enigmatic and elusive king of street art, whose work had slowly been taking global prominence since the turn of the millennium, carving a new niche in the world of contemporary art.

And his art was quickly becoming extremely valuable.

“There were Banksys all around the neighborhood [in East London]—on bridges, on walls—and it was apparent that he was famous and that his work was going to be worth a lot of money,” explained Thompson, who was 26 at the time. “It didn't take long to think, ‘Hey, we should nick one.’”

They had their eyes set on one piece in particular: The trio of smiley-faced riot police slapped on the side of the defunct Shoreditch Railroad Bridge in Hackney (known colloquially as Old Street Bridge), a neighborhood in East London (they had previously tried to tear a traffic bollard, tagged with Banksy’s trademark rat, out of the street with rope tied to a car, but failed).

As the bar announced last call, Thompson and his crew finished their beers, went to one of their houses to grab all matter of tools they could use to remove the piece (including a metal spatula), and made their way to the bridge. “It had been raining, so it came off fairly easily, but the piece ended up in tatters—in shreds,” Thompson said. “We were kind of uninspired with what we got, but I thought it was worth something so I held onto it for quite a while. And that’s when it all started.”

Five years after removing the artwork—storing it at his mother’s house in the interim—Thompson decided to have the piece restored and try to sell it. The proceeding adventure—filled with newbie mishaps, hurry-up-and-wait frustration, humorous uncertainty, and the overwhelming sense that this stolen art came to control his life—is the subject of Thompson’s documentary How to Sell a Banksy, which was released for a two-week window in 2012 before it was pulled, re-edited, and re-released this year. It screens today at a private venue during SXSW.

What should have been a simple plan to document a definitive process with a concrete narrative arc—steal, restore, sell—turned into something much more venomous and, in some ways, an experience indicative of the inherent irony of Banksy’s work as a whole. “What I did was in the spirit of Banksy,” Thompson said of taking the art off the street. “If someone is putting art in front of you on the street and it’s worth thousands of dollars, who says I can’t take it? It’s the mentality of Banksy, and I think he finds it funny.”

How To Sell A Banksy/Facebook

The film is divided into eight chronological parts—Restoration, Presentation, Valuation, Promotion, Authentication, Desperation, Motivation, Exhibition—and each opens with a quote from Banksy. Some are layered in meaning (“Never underestimate the power of a big gold frame”), some are blunt (“A lot of people never use their initiative because no one told them to”), and some are metaphorical (“Think outside the box, collapse the box, and take a fucking sharp knife to it”), but all are related to how the artist has come to view the contemporary art world and the people who try to find their place within it—Thompson included. “They take this piece down, they meet this rich guy, they get the money: That’s not the way the world works, and that’s not the world I lived in,” Thompson said. “I’m not in the art world. I was unemployed. I had no contacts.”

The production value of the film, like Thompson’s quest for his art world fortune, is DIY—with shaky, hand-held camerawork and the absence of the bells and whistles of contemporary documentaries, e.g. the brooding, allegorical B-roll of Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour or Jacob Kornbluth’s intuitively addictive animation work in Inequality for All, which, in some aspects, adds a grassroots, grab-and-go allure to the film and Thompson’s mission.

The film does, however, have one scene with some post-production graphics work that illustrates a conversation between Thompson and a member of Pest Control, the official authentication service overseen by Banksy himself. This organization has a looming presence throughout the whole film—the proverbial snake, fangs bared, keeping Thompson from reaching the exit of the cave in which he has found himself—and is one of the most fickle aspects of Banksy’s entire art career.

“Authentication: with street art there is no such thing,” Thompson said. Pest Control, in short, told him that they do not authenticate pieces taken from public domain, no matter how obvious it is that they are real. “If I didn’t have that piece of paper from Pest Control, [potential buyers] didn’t want anything to do with it,” he said. Even though he had the piece of art professionally restored and framed, the value and legitimacy of it couldn’t be solidified without Pest Control’s blessing.

Many art critics and gallery owners with whom Thompson corresponds throughout the film tell him to just keep the piece until a legitimate retrospective is set up in the distant future—by Gagosian, say, or MoMA—where the early street items would be a requirement and, therefore, need to be officially authenticated by Pest Control. His piece would automatically boost in value by a significant margin.

But Thompson’s life was consumed with real-world problems. He needed money to launch a jewelry shop New York City, where he currently resides, and this piece of art was his ticket to starting a new chapter of his life. “Am I just going to eat ramen until I’m 50 and then cash in?” he joked. Thompson also wanted to rid himself of the emotional weight of the art. “It controls your life—this artifact that may be worth a life-changing amount of money. It dictates every decision that you make in your life,” he said. “I wanted to draw a line and just sell it and leave the world of Banksy alone. Once this film is released and over I hope to never say the word Banksy again.”

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It seems, on that front, Banksy has won the war against Thompson. Although Thompson had successfully stolen his art (and, as the end of the film reveals, sold it for $25,000 to Leo Resig, co-founder of theCHIVE.com), the toll it took on Thompson’s psyche further inflated the underlying purpose of Banksy’s art and the effect it can have on those who come in contact with it. That art, in its purest form, is driven by the inherent fallacy of perceived value and how, through vehement opportunism and the declaration of importance, something that cost five dollars to make can drive someone to extreme, almost atavistic means in order to benefit from it financially.

The fact is that Banksy—the man behind the mask, the man playing a joke on us all—wanted this to happen. Instances like this further drive his point home. Much like how Mr. Brainwash acted as his main metaphor for how art can change people (both those making it as well as those buying it), Thompson, in another way, is speaking to the same principal of opportunism amongst those trying to make a buck off of the few rich people who can afford to buy this type of art.

But, as we come to realize throughout the film, Thompson knew this but kept going anyway. He heard the snake’s hiss and rattle, but drove deeper into the cave. “In the back of my mind, I always thought it was not worth anything,” Thompson admitted. “I kept taking a step back and questioning it, and ended up continuing. Art is a crazy world. Commercial art, in my mind, is a game that is rigged just to exploit stupid rich people.” Banksy agrees, writing in Wall and Piece: “When you go to an art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.”

Banksy did reach out to Thompson when he announced the release of the documentary, though—the only time throughout the entire process that the artist personally gave his input on Thompson’s journey. Under a pseudonym on Facebook, he typed a simple message. It was laced with the shadowy artist’s typical menacing humor and disgusted delight in the state of things.

All it said was: “Good luck.”