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

  • daniel Pearson

    I am a reporter for one of the UK’s largest publications and I have actually been researching the STEALING BANKSY show. I am very rarely ashamed of what other “reporters” write, but in this instance RJ Rushmore should be thoroughly ashamed. He asked Mr Baxter questions, Mr Baxter responded in an accurate manner, and RJ Rushmore simply ignored Mr Baxter’s responses and made up his own answers, which where wholly inaccurate. It isn’t that hard to actually use a bit of time to research the answers properly RJ Rushmore – what you have written borders on liable, what’s the point in asking questions if you are going to ignore the answers.

    Anyway, here is what RJ Rushmore should have written.

    1) The companies that he lists as being behind the STEALING BANKSY show are the wrong companies – it is not that hard to follow the leads and find out the companies behind the show. And you can also download their company reports and see their historic donations made to charities.

    2) There have been 2 instances in the UK of the council attempting to put a grade 2 listing on a building housing a Banksy. They have both been reported on by the press, and as an investigative journalist I can confirm that the council where in the process of applying for a Grade 2 listing on the building with No Ball Games on it – hence the piece was removed.

    3) RJ Rushmore says there is no indication of the charities affiliated with the event. It really doesn’t take much time to click on the big Charities tab at the top of the page and read the charities affiliated which include: Step by Step, The Tree of Hope” The Lyra Pearman Fund, Rowan Park school in Litherland, Asser Bishvil Foundation, Kunstmuseum Basel Stiftung and Nelson Mandela Childrens und (UK).
    I find this whole article very farcical, very badly researched, and I question the motives behind it. Surely if you are going to ask someone questions then you should listen to their answers before jumping to conclusions. Maybe RJ Rushmore should simply not ask questions and write whatever pops into his head, no matter how inaccurate (as he has).
    Whatsmore, Mr Baxter cannot remove the comments made. But I bet RJ Rushmore removes this comment as he seems to be the only one with the license to decide what is written on this page.

  • Daniel,

    I have not ignored Tony Baxter’s responses or made up his answers. I reposted his answers in their entirety, and I have not heard any complaints from Baxter or anyone at The Sincura Group about the interview or my response to it. If anyone still seriously doubts that I have accurately published Baxter’s responses to our questions, I can post a video of myself opening an email from Baxter with his responses attached.

    If you have information regarding the companies behind the Stealing Banksy? show (not the sponsors, but the actual company or companies that make up The Sincura Group and are managing the event), I would be happy to post that information and post a correction. I have requested that information from Tony Baxter and received no reply as of yet. If I had that information, I might be able to download the relevant company reports that you mention.

    Again, I have been unable to find any information about councils attempting to list buildings because they have a Banksy on them. The closest I have found is, ironically, The Whitehouse, the pub in Liverpool that was once home to the Banksy rat now up for auction at Stealing Banksy?. The building was listed shortly before Banksy painted his piece there (http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/liverpool-banksy-rat-disappears-white-6675879). But perhaps I am not a good researcher. If you know of any reports of councils trying to list buildings because of Banksy pieces on them, please let me know and I will add a correction to this post.

    Going by Archive.org’s records, it appears that the “Charity” tab was added to the Stealing Banksy? website sometime after April 10th despite their “About” page referencing a list of charities before it was on their website. We sent Baxter our questions on April 8th, when there was no Charity tab. That is what spurred our question. At this point, it’s impossible to show the exact date and time that the Charity tab appeared, but it was certainly after we sent Baxter our questions and he did not acknowledge the tab in our interview. I personally suspect that the tab was only added to the site after our interview and response were published. That said, I’m sorry I did not reconfirm its lack of existence before posting our interview or response, and I’m glad to see that the relevant charities are now listed on the Stealing Banksy? website. I have added an update to this post noting this change to the website.

    On your final point, I am confused. First you suggest that I am making up Baxter’s answers, but you also seem upset that Baxter cannot take back his own answers. So did you mean with your first point that I published Baxter’s answers correctly, but that I twisted them in this post? While I believe this is inaccurate, it would be easy for any readers to check and decide for themselves, since my this post links back to the original interview and the interview links back to this post.

    Additionally, I have not heard from Baxter since last Thursday before either post was published, so I am not sure if he wants to take back his comments or not. But as a journalist, I’m sure you appreciate that I cannot allow Baxter to take back, after publication, comments made on the record in a typed interview that his company proposed to Vandalog.

  • J Wallace

    Good on you Daniel. I have read RJ Rushmore’s comments for while now. He sits on a high horse! He claims authority, but I don’t really see his perspective, and a lot of the stuff he posts is made up hogwash… this is not the first time he has simply ignored everyone’s views and published his own views as gospel. Everything Mr Baxter says makes sense, yet RJ ignore it and writes what he wants. What’s the point of interviewing people if you don’t take an objective view on what they write. I am not surprised that Mr Baxter decided not to follow up conversations with you. And what does the state of the company have to do with the art – RJ claims to be an art lover but focuses more of his attention on a company. Well done Daniel, well done Mr Baxter, and I agree that RJ should be exposed not the other way around. Your articles have nothing to do with art. You should be ashamed – I am an art lover but you miss all the relevant points here.

  • Odette

    Daniel, as a reporter for one of the UK’s largest publications, you might wish to avail yourself of a dictionary and learn the difference between “liable” and libel.

  • I took the photo at the top of this page. I live in Tottenham and – until 22 May 2014 – am one of the local councillors for Tottenham Hale ward. In September 2009 I also took several photos of “No Ball Games” when it was first sprayed on the side wall of 328 High Road, Tottenham N17.

    Daniel Pearson writes that: “…as an investigative journalist [he] can confirm that the council were in the process of applying for a Grade 2 listing on the building with No
    Ball Games on it – hence the piece was removed”. These last few words suggest that Mr Pearson believes an application for listing prompted the removal of No Ball Games. This is very curious. Had the Secretary of State decided that 328 High Road Tottenham required national listing as: “a building, object or structure that is of national, historical or architectural interest”, then works to the exterior of that building would have needed to be authorised by Haringey Council granting listed building consent.

    As I understand the position, it is a criminal offence to carry out works to a listed building without prior listed building consent. So is Mr Pearson really suggesting that whoever hacked out and removed the wall did so to circumvent a possible legal restriction? Or is this just speculation? Or maybe even an attempt to show Banksy’s work as needing heritage protection?

    Let me join in the speculation game. When “Slave Labour” was removed from the wall of Wood Green Poundland, I felt we were witnessing an elaborate and clever scheme to generate publicity for Banksy and to keep the money rolling in. I Imagined everyone involved in the game was choking back their laughter as they watched or read art “experts” and pretentious posturing politicians announcing gravely that sprayed graffiti “belonged to the community”. Haringey officials were said to be
    in earnest “talks with the Arts Council about whether the art work was exported ‘appropriately’.” Populist outrage went viral nationally, then internationally. All free publicity increasing Banksy’s notoriety.

    So were the blokes from Sincura a suave Prince Charming and Dandini in Banky’s pantomime? Banksy, they’re behind you? Oh, no they weren’t?

    But if they have no connection to the Banksy publicity machine, it certainly let them present themselves as good guys. Not people prepared to hack graffiti from the side walls of shops for profit, but art lovers ensuring these “pieces” were: “… removed to be sensitively … restored to their former glory.” With the proceeds to be donated – of
    course – to local charities.

    Apparently the latest “news” is that his Banksyness is pissed-off by all these goings on – the auctions, dubious charities etc. Which may of course be simply fluff and puffery by his publicity machine to feed the BBC website and the Daily Telegraph.

    Or it may be completely true. In which case, if Banksy has the urge to take money off the stinking rich by selling one his pieces and giving the money to Tottenham charities he can do this directly without needing Sincura or Tony Baxter.

  • Dom Barratt

    Daniel Pearson is blatantly Tony Baxter using a fake account. What a slimey loser.