It was in mid-January that a thief hurled a brick through the window of the A2Z street retreat, a wellness center on New York’s Lower East Side, and made off with three paintings by the street artist Phase 2.
At 9 p.m. on Feb. 6, Alfredo Martinez got a telephone call from a man who told him he had possession of the haul. Martinez is a working artist, and a man with some experience of the dark side of the art world: Back in the day, he made a slew of fake Jean-Michel Basquiat drawings and sold them to a collector, only to discover that this was an FBI sting. He did 36 months in the Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn.
This was where he had met the man who called to tell him that he had bought the three Phase 2s from the robber. He went on to say that the NYPD were out on the street putting heavy pressure on people they felt might know who had them. The man asked Martinez: Could he use his art smarts to take the paintings off his hands, and also to get some cash into them?
Martinez learned where the art had been taken from, and made an early call to Mike Saes of A2Z, then another to Bob Wittman, the FBI agent who had arrested him, and with whom he had become friendly. The now retired agent advised him on the proper way to set things up. Martinez got back to his jailhouse connection, who was living with a woman. “There were weeks of going back and forth on social media,” he says. “They sent me photos of the work early on. Every day there were two or three calls from them, negotiating back and forth.”
Off the streets
The theft highlights significant changes in street art culture. Phase 2, who was born Michael Lawrence Marrow, and died of ALS in 2019 at 64, was a major figure in the first generation of that movement, which emerged in the early 1970s.
“Phase is a legendary writer,” says David Schmidlapp, co-curator of a Phase 2 show that will be at the ACA Gallery at 529 West 20th Street. “I did this street art publication called IG Times, which was the premier international street art publication in the early to mid 1980s. Phase goes way back and he was the most influential in laying down the foundations of style.” Phase 2 relished anonymity, he said. “He never liked to be photographed. He always covered his face, he made a performance out if it.”
That was back when those putting their mark on walls or subway trains were widely seen as vandals, not as artists worth collecting, let alone stealing. Al Díaz, a co-founder with Jean-Michel Basquiat of the iconic graffiti team SAMO, remembers what he believes was the first gallery presentation of graffiti art, a show of the United Graffiti Artists in 1973. “It was at the Razor Gallery on West Broadway,” he says. It was there, he says, that the graffiti artist, Snake 1, would be the first to sell a piece in a gallery. SAMO started up five years later, was soon written up in The Village Voice, and became a powerful presence in street culture.
Did he or Basquiat fret that robbers might make off with their work? “The idea of having pieces stolen was not something you would ever worry about back then,” Díaz says.
Fast forward to the mainstreaming of street art, and the burgeoning of such talents as Rammellzee, Futura 2000 and Richard Hambleton. Calvin Tomkins has written in the New Yorker that the Dec. 1, 1983, opening of the “Post-Graffiti” exhibition at the bluest of blue chip spaces, the Sidney Janis Gallery, on West 57th Street could be seen as the formal entrance of street art into both the art world and, yes, the art market. So, inevitably, to Banksy.
The amounts Banksy’s pieces fetch have made the artist a juicy target. Thefts have been mostly in the U.K., but not entirely. In January 2019, thieves cut a mural from a steel door at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, a painting of a mournful girl, his memorial to the 90 victims of a 2015 terrorist attack there. It was recovered in a French/Italian operation last summer in the attic of a farmhouse near Rome. There were six arrests in France.
Other images he put up in Paris were of rats, often armed with knives, and were reportedly his reaction to the treatment of undocumented aliens by French President Emmanuel Macron. In September 2019, thieves sawed away such a piece from a sign near the Centre Pompidou. Two men were arrested. One appeared before a magistrate, saying that Banksy had told him to commit the robbery.
A smart defensive move, this. Banksy has a gift for such pranks, as when Girl with Balloon sold for $1.4 million in October 2018 at Sotheby’s, London, and was part shredded directly after the auction by a mechanism he had embedded and controlled remotely. He retitled it Love is in the Bin. Its value zoomed. Social-media responses to the rat theft were ecstatic. (Banksy has never authenticated a stolen piece, a method he calls “Pest Control.”)
Stik, another Brit street artist with a large reputation and strong auction prices, has also naturally become a target. Stik, like Banksy, will sometimes make art that delivers a social message, such as support for the National Health Service, and he had intended to mark the installation of Holding Hands, his first public sculpture, in Hoxton Square, Hackney, the London borough where he has long lived, by sending 100,000 prints to residents to celebrate their endurance during the pandemic and lock-down.
A great many of these prints were stolen before they reached him and soon began popping up for sale on-line. Such was the local furore though that most, including many of those that had been bought on-line, were shortly returned to Stik for their planned distribution. “Hopefully, they were struck by the fact that Stik was doing something really nice for his fellow Hackney residents—funded out of his own pocket—because he wanted to bring a smile to people’s faces, during what has been an incredibly difficult year for most,” an official announcement ran.
Things don’t often turn out that well in the street-art world, though. Invader, the French artist who makes mosaics from ceramic pieces, working at night, frequently masked, has made what he calls “invasions”, installing work in cities in 33 countries, and putting out booklets to indicate precisely where. Invader’s work can sell for six figures so he too is a plum target.
On August 2020 a local news report in Hong Kong, noted that CCTV footage seemed to show that an Invader piece that had vanished from a wall where it had been for several years had been taken down by workmen, who handed it over half an hour later to “a foreign man and a woman”. The report ended by noting, poignantly, that Invader had “done at least 48 art pieces all over Hong Kong, and not many have survived.”
“They wanted ten, we offered five. We finally agreed on 75 hundred”
Back in the present day, Martinez saw to it that the recovery of the stolen art got media attention. This reporter has known him for a long time, and so it was that Quentin Pistol, who is making a documentary about Martinez in which he is shown creating fresh Basquiat fakes, drove me to the Jersey City apartment he shares with his brother and sister. There, Martinez told us that he was co-ordinating the delivery of the three Phase 2s and the $7,500 which was being provided by Mike Saes, the owner of A2Z.
“They wanted ten, we offered five. We finally agreed on 75 hundred,” Martinez says.
“I had to borrow it,” Saes told me later.
Pistol and I seated ourselves alongside Martinez, who was sitting in front of a broad screen, taking occasional telephone calls during which he would say things like, “I’m waiting for the cash, which I can’t touch a dime of.” Then he would get back to extinguishing zombies in an interminable video game, Dying Light 2, as we settled down to what seemed an interminable wait for the coming together of the money and the art.
A first installment of cash arrived in the early afternoon. $2,500. A telephone call at 3:30 p.m. indicated that a painting was on its way. Pistol and I went into hiding in a bedroom and I silenced my iPhone. We learned later that Martinez’ jailhouse buddy had driven his female partner to the house in a Suburban. She had come up to the apartment, picked up the cash and handed over the first of the Phase 2s.
The room was empty when Pistol and I were allowed back, apart from Martinez. Another wait, a call. “They’re coming back with the rest of the money,” Martinez said. Bedroom time. $5,000 arrived one and a half hours later. That, too, was parked on the desk. The smoothness of the action had persuaded the robber that Martinez could be trusted and both paintings would be delivered.
Another call. Then we watched as Saes gleefully unfurled the last two Phase 2s. Saes called the NYPD to say that he had got his art back. “They said they had already made an arrest,” he said.
I spoke with Detective Kadia Saunders of the 9th Precinct, which was handling the case. She did not deny that an individual had been arrested, but would not offer further comment. The NYPD did not respond to further inquiries about the status of the investigation.
Saes though, who did talk to them, says that the person who was arrested was in no way connected with the individuals who got the art from them. Nor had it been a sophisticated operation. “He took those three paintings because they were unframed. He didn’t want to be carrying a framed painting.”
He added firmly, “The police had their man.”
That they certainly did. On March 17, 2021, the individual had been arrested for stealing a couple of artworks, one being an Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can print, from the back of a Porsche parked in Manhattan’s NoHo district. It was reported that the 25-year-old had a record of more than 20 arrests for offenses including petty larceny and break-ins going back to 2015.
Saes would later tell me that all three paintings were to be included in the Phase 2 retrospective at the ACA Gallery, priced at $75,000 apiece. Not up there with Basquiat or Hambleton yet, but more than okay. We shouldn’t expect any further such adventures to involve Alfredo Martinez though. “It wasn’t just Basquiats I forged but Keith Harings too. Jail was a publicity stunt. But I was tired of being a forger and decided it’s either time to cut bait or fish.”
Martinez insists he is not interested in handling any more stolen artworks. “Nobody with hot art should expect me to pick up that phone again.”