It’s one of the wilder art heists we’ve ever heard of. And the end result is even stranger.
A sculpture by street artist Banksy, a riff on Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker said to be worth as much as £1 million ($1.3 million), was pulled from Sotheby’s sale today, just an hour before the auction was due to start.
Why? Just yesterday, Sotheby’s seemed to be going full steam ahead with the sale of The Drinker (2004) despite the wild backstory, which involved the sculpture being stolen twice.
Perhaps the unknown consignor got cold feet—or sobered up?—at the 11th hour. In a statement, Sotheby’s declined to offer details on the last-minute change, saying only: “The work has been withdrawn in agreement with the consignor.”
Banksy originally placed The Drinker in a small square in London in 2004, according to Sotheby’s. It was subsequently purloined by Andy Link, also known as AK47, the leader of satirical art group Art Kieda. The ensuing feud between the two artists drew international attention and media coverage.
Link claimed he registered the so-called art find with local police and then contacted Banksy himself, demanding a ransom of approximately £5,000 or an original work to cover his costs. Banksy refused to play ball—but the work was later mysteriously taken from Link’s property in 2006 and recovered by the artist and his dealer.
The sculpture was “mysteriously retrieved from Art Kieda’s lock up in an anonymous heist which left AK 47 with nothing but the abandoned traffic cone from atop The Drinker‘s head,” Sotheby’s wrote in its description of the lot. (The work has been removed from the “Contemporary Curated” sale page, though an essay about it is still on the auction house’s website.) Crowned with a new traffic cone, the sculpture was acquired by its present owner in 2014.
“I do not understand how Sotheby’s can sell this when I have such proof,” Link told the Guardian. Sotheby’s countered that it was “satisfied that the seller has a legal right to put the piece up for auction.”
Sotheby’s legal team also sent a letter to Link, dated yesterday, that reasserted its rejection of his claim, according The Art Newspaper. The auction house said it would “require a cogent and persuasive case, with appropriate evidence before—after taking instructions from the consignor—altering the planned sale process on any legal grounds relating to purported title claim by you.”
Sotheby’s acknowledged “the interesting story of [Link’s] involvement in this piece in 2004,” but said it sees “no reason why the consignor of the work, subsequently authenticated by Banksy’s authentication process, does not have title to sell.” The work was estimated to sell for £750,000 to £1 million ($970,950 to $1.29 million).
Sotheby’s declined to specify whether Link’s going public with his claim influenced the consignor’s decision.
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