Charity Scrambles As Auction Falls Apart For Banksy Nazi Painting

Banksy's painting of a Nazi admiring a mountain landscape hangs in the display room of a Housing Works Thrift Shop on 23rd Street in New York City on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013. It later sold at auction for $615,000.
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Fans applauded the famed British street artist Banksy last week when a New York City charity that fights AIDS and homelessness auctioned off a “vandalized” painting he stealthily created and donated to the organization.

But as it turns out, the winning bidder failed to make good on the $615,000 winning offer for the unique Banksy work.

TPM confirmed on Friday that the charity, Housing Works, was forced to scramble after the person who originally won the auction, identified in the online bidding process only as “gorpetri,” fell through.

The charity’s chief development officer, Matthew Bernardo, told TPM the outcome meant the organization, which operates a number of thrift shops in New York City, had to seek other buyers for the painting.

“We are still looking into why he defaulted, and we reserve the right to sort of see what we’re going to do with it,” Bernardo said. “But we were really looking to close the transaction so we could put the money to use.”

The painting was part of a series of works Banksy unveiled each day in October during what the anonymous artist described as his New York “residency.” Many of the works were stencils he secretly painted on the sides of buildings overnight, only to reveal them on his website the next day. But the painting given to the charity was unusual for a number of reasons.

The work, a landscape painting Banksy altered by adding an image of a Nazi officer to its foreground, was titled “The banality of the banality of evil.” The artist described it on his website as “A thrift store painting vandalised then re-donated to the thrift store.”

The landscape was originally painted by an artist named K. Sager. According to media reports, it had been purchased at a Housing Works thrift shop months earlier for $50. It reportedly was then altered and mysteriously dropped off on Oct. 29 at a Housing Works location in the city’s Gramercy neighborhood.

The windfall for the charity was immediately obvious. Some of Banksy’s other works have sold for more than $1 million.

“Housing Works is thrilled to receive such a generous donation from Banksy,” spokeswoman Rebecca Edmondson said in a statement at the time. “It means a lot to our organization that the artist is using his time in New York to give back to the very community that has been captivated by his every move.”

The charity quickly put the piece up for auction online, and set the deadline for bidding as Oct. 31, the last day of Banksy’s project. The winning six-figure bid drew worldwide headlines, including in the artist’s home country of England.

But signs of trouble surfaced this week when one of the bidders who originally lost the auction reached out to TPM to describe what happened in the aftermath.

Wil Emling, a Minneapolis man who bid on behalf of what he described as a private buyer, said Housing Works contacted him on Monday.

“I get an email saying basically the bidder has canceled and to call him right away,” Emling said.

He then spoke by phone to Bernardo, who he said told him the first bidder to make an offer and wire the funds would walk away with the one-of-a-kind Banksy. But Emling had reservations about the painting in light of the news and ultimately decided to walk away.

Bernardo confirmed to TPM that the organization contacted Emling as well as “all the top qualified bidders.” The painting was ultimately sold to someone, Bernardo said, although he declined to disclose its final price or the name of the buyer out of respect for the person’s privacy.

An attorney that specialized in art was also brought in on a pro bono basis to finalize the deal, Bernardo said, though he also declined to name the lawyer. Emling identified the attorney as John Cahill, of Cahill Partners LLP. Cahill did not respond to several messages TPM left with his office.

In another twist, Emling also said Bernardo shared with him an origin story of the painting that conflicted with the accounts given to the media at the time of the auction.

“They were in on it all along. They knew. Actually, Banksy’s people actually contacted them saying, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a landscape piece, we want to paint a monster on it,'” Emling said.

“So the whole story about somebody buying it weeks ago and then somebody coming and dropping it off and telling them, ‘I need to speak with the manager, you have a very expensive piece on your hands here,’ isn’t the case,” Emling said.

On Friday, however, Bernardo denied that Housing Works had any advance knowledge that a Banksy work would be dropped off at one of its locations, and he suggested Emling may have misunderstood him.

“I certainly know that we didn’t know in advance that we were getting this,” Bernardo said.

The executive described the events as something that essentially caught the organization off guard and was a wonderful surprise.

“It was one of the largest gifts Housing Works has ever received and we’re thrilled,” Bernardo said. “We’re thankful that he chose us as an emblem of New York to give his donation to.”

Photo and additional reporting by TPM’s Nick R. Martin.

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