Picking apart our interview with Tony Baxter of the “Stealing Banksy?” auction

The former site of Banksy's "No Ball Games" piece in London. Photo by Alan Stanton.
The former site of Banksy’s “No Ball Games” piece in London. Photo by Alan Stanton.

Yesterday we published an interview that Caroline Caldwell and I conducted with Tony Baxter, director of The Sincura Group. That’s the private concierge behind last year’s sale of the Slave Labour piece formally by Banksy and the upcoming Stealing Banksy? auction, which will have at least seven supposed Banksy street pieces up for sale. Not only do I disagree with a lot of what Baxter said in the interview, but I found many of his answers dodges at best and misleading or shady at worst, so, as promised, here are my thoughts on Baxter’s answers…

As is made abundantly clear on the Stealing Banksy? website, the auction is being run by something called The Sincura Group. I did a bit of digging and found that there are at least two companies with names close to that registered in the UK: The Sincura Grp LTD and Sincura Limited. Both were dissolved in 2014 under Section 1000 of the Companies Act 2006, so it appears that the UK government believes both companies to be inactive. Baxter was tied to both companies. He was a founding director of The Sincura Grp LTD (although that was only temporary, and appears to have been mostly for clerical reasons) and sole director and secretary of Sincura Limited when it was dissolved earlier this week. It seemed quite odd to me that anyone managing The Sincura Group would allow the company to officially close up shop (as far as the government is concerned) so soon before a major event, especially since they appear to still be carrying on their concierge business.

I asked Baxter about The Sincura Grp LTD being dissolved (Sincura Limited was only dissolved this week, and I was unaware of the details of the company until after we sent Baxter our interview questions), but his response was simply that I’d gotten my information wrong, that The Sincura Group is actually a group of companies rather than one company under the name The Sincura Grp LTD. On April 17th, I emailed Baxter and asked what registered company name or names are affiliated with Stealing Banksy? and The Sincura Group, but have received no response as of publication time. The Sincura Group and Stealing Banksy? websites do not provide any answer either, which seems to me like it could be a flagrant violation of UK government regulations, but I’m no expert on the subject.

It should also be noted that a whois search for Stealingbanksy.com lists “The Sincura Group” as the domain registrant and the address listed for “The Sincura Group” is the same as the one listed as Baxter’s address in the UK government records for Sincura Limited, but it is a different address from the registered addresses of either Sincura Limited or The Sincura Grp LTD.

Why is Baxter being so cagey, and why is The Sincura Group so lacking in even basic transparency? As for his title of director, to be fair to Baxter, it may be that he is not the director of The Sincura Group in the legal sense of being on a board of directors, but rather that his job title is just “director,” so fair enough on that.

Moving on…

In describing last year’s auction organized by The Sincura Group for the sale of the famous Slave Labour Banksy street piece, Baxter said, “We were the only company to unearth the true story behind ‘Slave Labour’ last year, and the only company to bring it back to the public domain.” This is an argument that Baxter and The Sincura Group have made time and time again, that somehow organizing these auctions is for the benefit of the public, when really they only allow a brief window for people to see these broken artworks outside of their intended context before the works head back into private collections. Also, I’m not 100% sure what Baxter thinks public domain means, but it’s definitely not what he thinks.

In our interview, as in others, Baxter claims that “by having a Banksy on your wall you run the real risk of having a grade 2 listing put on your building.” For those outside of the UK who may not know, a listed building is basically a building that has been classified as a historic landmark, which makes them difficult to renovate. While it has been suggested that perhaps Banksy’s work should qualify a building to be listed, there has not been a single instance of that happening yet, and the expert on this very question concluded that having a building listed because of a Banksy on the facade could happen “only by extending case law and policy” beyond current standards. Even if standards did change, given that the listed building designation is about preserving surviving history rather than guessing at what might be historic in the future, a building owner would have to leave a Banksy piece on their building for many years before the building might be eligible to be listed. So, is it possible? Sure, but Baxter is overstating the possibility, particularly in the short term.

The Stealing Banksy? website makes a big deal about all the money that this auction will raise for charities, but in answering our question about charitable donations relating to Stealing Banksy?, Baxter avoided half of what we asked. While he did say that some of the proceeds from the event would go to The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (UK), he failed to answer what share of the proceeds they would be getting. He also failed to provide details about the local charities that would be receiving unspecified donations as a result of the sale of each individual piece except in the case of the No Ball Games wall, and again failed to answer whether those charities were aware of what might be coming to them. UPDATE as of April 21st, 2014: The Stealing Banksy? now has new added a tab on the site listing the charities to be involved (although still not specific numbers about what of proceeds or profits will go to those charities, with one exception). Archive.org shows that the Charity tab is a recent addition despite their about page referencing the charities tab before it actually existed. Going by Archive.org’s records, the Charity tab was added sometime after April 10th. We sent Baxter our questions on April 8th, when there was no Charity tab.

Later in the interview, Baxter again goes on about “the public domain,” saying, “We ensure that in 100 years’ time these pieces of art are still in the public domain.” I think he means the public trust, but even then he is wrong. These walls are not getting donated to museums. They are being sold, most likely to private collectors. That is not preserving these works for the public. It’s taking them from public spaces and putting them in private spaces. The pieces might still exist in 100 years due to The Sincura Group, but they might also be locked in private vaults. Oddly enough, The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund’s website describes the pieces being sold at Stealing Banksy? in a hilariously different way, noting “None of these pieces have ever been displayed in public before… This will be the first and only time these pieces will ever be seen.”

Baxter dismissed our question about moral rights, implying that just because these works were painted illegally that the artist’s moral rights don’t apply. I’m not sure about the UK, where moral rights are weaker than in many other countries, but the Australian government has said that, within reason, moral rights do apply even for illegal street art and graffiti.

Baxter does not fully answer our question about establishing provenance without official certification from Banksy/Pest Control, ignoring the potential for forgeries based on works posted to Banksy’s website. Just because Banksy posts a picture of a work on his website and someone has a chunk of concrete that looks like that photograph does not mean they have an original Banksy.

Baxter’s answer for as to why auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s refuse to sell Banksy street pieces implies that those auction houses also refuse to sell authenticated Banksy works intended for sale in galleries, which is not true. They sell those works all the time. They only refuse to sell street pieces, even though some Banksy street pieces have sold for more than many authenticated Banksy originals sold at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. Baxter gave a very misleading dodge of our question.

Finally, Baxter refuses to delve much into how The Sincura Group ensures ethical buyers of the work, or what an ethical buyer means to them, so that’s still just left for us to speculate about.

The main sense I get from Baxter is simple: Trust us when we say that we’re doing the right thing, but don’t investigate further.

So was the interview worth doing? I find it interesting, but even when we asked the questions that people have been clamoring to have answered, it was basically just Baxter saying the same things he always says. We gave him a platform, and I’m not sure how effective that was for the purpose of challenging him, even if this post helps a little bit. Maybe the interview would have been better as a podcast or a transcribed phone interview, since we could have immediately challenged him and asked follow-up questions, but that wasn’t as feasible for Caroline and I. Seeing how things played out here, I think Caroline’s interview earlier this year with an auction house’s supposed “street art expert” was a lot more useful for challenging the wisdom of selling street pieces.

Photo by Alan Stanton