Friday, 8 April 2016

The Last Laugh Now

Photo by Tim Platt
Half a dozen years ago, in 2010, I was hard up. I was complaining about being broke to a friend to whom I sold a pretentious book by your man from El Bulli, the Spanish King of Molecular Gastronomy, for twenty quid. I had it as a consequence of having worked with Mr Alan Yau OBE, the restaurateur. It was slightly damaged on arrival and I made the publisher send a replacement, so got to keep the torn one. My friend's son wanted to be a Chef, so this was a nice gift for him and I was so broke that twenty quid actually mattered.

My friend pointed out that I could hardly plead poverty when I had a thousand pounds hanging on the wall in the form of a beautiful original Banksy print. It's the one of the monkey wearing a sandwich board that says, 'Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge'. This is another souvenir of my association with Hakkasan, Yau's former company, which owned the lease on premises in Kingly Court, just of Carnaby Street, now occupied by Cha Cha Moon. Before work started on the interior, the space was let to a crew of street artists as the venue for a pre-Christmas sale in 2003, Santa's Ghetto

Mog Morishima co-ordinated the event for Hakkasan. I was well aware of Banksy by then - my sister lives in Bristol, where his Mild Mild West piece is a local landmark - and asked Mog what was going on? He told me that a gaggle of Nathan Barley types were smoking weed in the courtyard (which is bound to make the landlord nervous). I asked about the art and Mog indicated a drawer that contained about half a dozen items from the sale. I recall a discussion about the prices. The Laugh Now print was a numbered edition of 750, 150 of which were signed. The unsigned prints were fifty quid (actually, £49.99) while the signed ones were going for £150. As I recall, we talked about whether Banksy's signature was worth a hundred quid? The question was academic to me since I had no spare cash (then, in 2010, or now!)

I don't want to drag you into my private hell, but my ownership and sale of this print is inextricably tied up with what some brusque bloke on the UAA forum called my, 'sob story.' In late 2003, my mother had finally died after hovering in the vicinity of death for nine long months. My so-called 'career' as a freelance writer had practically disappeared, but Mr Alan Yau - he had yet to be honoured with The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire - kindly kept me going with odd bits of work for Hakkasan. That's how I came to be in their office, joshing Mog, that day. I asked what was going to be done with these prints - surely they were not just going to languish in that plan chest? - and the idea arose that they may as well be shared among those of us who happened to be present and interested: Merry Chrstmas!

I chose Laugh Now because I thought it was the wittiest image. Someone had drawn on its back, a rough pencil outline sketch of what looked at a glance like two seated figures. I didn't mind because you don't look a gift horse in the gob, so I took it home and stuck it up on my bedroom wall with BluTac. Some months later, after I had inherited a decent chunk of change from the sale on my mother's house and was in a sufficiently secure position, financially, to titivate my environment, I bought a cheap IKEA frame in which my Banksy has been displayed ever since. When Graham came round that day in 2010, it was hanging on the wall behind my front door. After he told me how much it might be worth, I moved it to a more prominent position over the record player!

I found it hard to believe that miBanksy - my mad magpie mind plays a version of Sleng Teng with Banksy in the lyric instead of sensi - was really so valuable and took to the internet to find out, WTF? The deal is that an outfit called Pest Control handles Banksy's business and verifies artwarks that are claimed to be by Him, issuing Certificates of Authenticity (COA). A COA guarantees the provenance of a Banksy piece, which is all important so far as its market value is concerned. There's a form on their website for claimants to complete and, if the arbiters approve, they'll issue a COA and charge an admin. fee. I took miBanksy off the wall, laid it on the carpet and shot it with my camerafone. Then I turned the frame over, took its back off, and photographed the puzzling sketch on its reverse. They are not good photographs - you could barely see the pencil outline of the sketch on the back - but I sent them off to Pest Control and hoped for the best.

The Laugh Now stencil was first used to decorate a Brighton nightclub, the Ocean Rooms, in 2002 and has become one of Banksy's most popular images (I refuse to deploy the adjective, 'iconic,' in this context). An eBay search yields dozens of versions of it, mostly produced without license from the artist, who is unlikely to care, since he is a squillionaire. (When Banksy did New York in 2013, a local group of jealous guerilla artists responded with a sign saying, 'Laugh Now But One Day I’ll Be So Rich That I Can Do Graffiti Wherever I Want'). Banksy's sandwich board-wearing monkey was reproduced ten times in black and white on three boards, six metres long, running along a wall of the club (the artist also reproduced this on the side of a District Line tube train, as shown in his book, Wall and Piece). The piece sold at Bonhams' Urban Art sale in 2008 for £228,000, exceeding its estimate.

That's all very well, you say, but what's yours worth?

Pest Control got back to me eventually, declining to authenticate miBanksy. I've lost the e-mail but there's a photo in a Facebook album called Chez Moi dated 31 July 2010 with a caption that notes, 'the Banksy in the corner... It's not signed or numbered, so not worth big money.' Without a COA, I might have got a few hundred quid for it, but not ten hundred, so I let miBanksy be and looked for other sources of revenue. I wound up painting Michael Freeman's house! Mr Freeman is a photographer with whom I had collaborated in 1994 on the production of a book for wagamama, the noodle bar with which Mr Alan Yau OBE earned his name, not to mention his medal from Her Maj.

Now, fifteen-odd years later, here I was painting the exterior of his house in one of London's most chic streets on the W8 side of the Gate. It has a bow window that was rotten and needed replacing. That held the job up for several months over the Summer, while I was considering AirBnB and posting pics on Facebook, and by the time I finished painting this house single-handedly (I mean, on my own; I had two hands at the time) it was winter. In September, I sat a meditation course after which the teacher asked me, "when are you coming to India?" I replied that letting my London flat and going travelling was an increasingly attractive proposition. At a group meditation session in October, I encountered an acquaintance who had moved to London and was looking for a place. The following day - in late October, mind - I was twenty feet up a ladder in drizzle thinking I would rather be anywhere else when I had the idea of renting to Udo and using the Freemans' money to buy a ticket to India. With, as it transpired, life changing consequences.

This is where my shaggy dog sob story gets really shocking (sic). My story got literally, electrically shocking! And people tend to be shocked when they hear about it. They ask me what happened and I tell them, "I received a massive electric shock in the shower of an Indian hotel room." They ask for more details and I say, "you don't really want to know." They insist that they do, so I start telling them and they look concerned. I tell them more and their expression turns to alarm. I carry on but they stop me, because it is too upsetting. These days, I direct enquiries to YouTube, where the tale is told in a series of short videos, so people can have as much of the horror as they can handle. Suffice it to say that it left me as a left transradial amputee with a gammy left foot.

As you might have gathered from the news, being disabled under the current UK government is no picnic. Within a couple of years of my injury, I was assessed as being fit for work, even though the only paid jobs I'd done in the previous decade were manual, handyman-type tasks and the one indispensable qualification that every handyman simply must have is a pair of hands. Now, while nominally self-employed as a freelance copy writer, like in the old days, and a student editorial coach, I don't actually have any clients, which is also like the old days. (Still, if you need some copy written, or are a student whose written English needs to improve, my rates are very reasonable.) I get by on Disability Living Allowance - which is being cancelled - and the kindness of friends. You might be surprised how cheaply one can live in London if one is mortgage free, barring extraordinary service charge demands like the one I now face. Still, it gets boring, havng no money and not going out much, and once again I got to thinking about flogging miBanksy.

I went online, to the Urban Art Association forum and started talking about my copy of Laugh Now in a reactivated thread entitled, 'Banksy Laugh Now Artists Proof,' because that is what I initially thought my unsigned/numbered copy of the print was. In this instance, 'Artist's Proof' refers to a run of 69 copies of the Laugh Now print, in addition to the 750 copies in the commercial edition, which were also signed and numbered and, consequently, sell for more moolah. Indeed, there is one on eBay that I am told has been there for some time with a 'Buy It Now' price of £25,000. Sexual connotations aside, 69 seems like a random number. Could it be that this was a hitherto unknown 70th AP, rendered unsaleable by the doodle on its back? If you think about it, this is one of only some 70 proofs and is therefore rarer than the 750 numbered ones or even the 150 of those that were signed!

Peeps on the UAA boards were understandably sceptical, describing it as, 'backdoor,' i.e.: lost, stolen or strayed. Illegitimate. In fact, the correct designation of miBanksy is, Commercial Sample, which is still not a copy intended for sale and, as such, won't be verified by Pest Control, I was informed. Still, a few prospectors messaged me privately, asking for pictures. I rooted through an old hard drive and dug out the old snaps I'd taken with my phone. I couldn't remember the sketch on the back of the print, having only seen it once in a dozen years, and that was six years ago. I thought it was a floor plan, perhaps. The picture was worse than I remembered. It was so faint, I could hardly make out the line of the drawing. I fiddled with the contrast in Photoshop and what came up seemed like a rough sketch of two seated figures. It was evidently done quickly, but with great fluency in the line, by someone who can draw, for sure. I couldn't post direct to the UAA forum, but someone kindly pasted them up for me so that everyone could see this mysterious sketch. The first response was from astroboy who simply said, 'Pulp Fiction.'

The mysterious sketch, with BluTac marks in corners!
The Old Street Pulp Fiction piece.
As soon as I read that, the following morning, I saw it. The two figures were not seated, but pointing bananas! Oh.My.Days. Is it a preliminary sketch for another of Banksy's best known pieces, Pulp Fiction

Banksy's Pulp Fiction depicts Travolta and Sam Jackson as Vincent 'n' Jules from the Tarantino film in black and white, pointing yellow bananas instead of pistols. It was thrown up above a barber shop, on the side of an electrical substation near London's 'silicon roundabout,' where the trendy techy internetty start up companies are clustered. As such, it was important in the expansion of Banksy's reputation and there was outrage and sadness when it was obliterated in 2007.

In Banksy Does New York, the HBO documentary about Banksy's Better Out Than In 'residency' in New York during October 2013 - when he produced a new artwork every day for a month - there is a discussion of one stunt that involved selling spray can art at $60 a pop from a stall by Central Park. The critic, Carlo McCormick talks about the torment of acquaintances who missed this opportunity. He asked them, "do you really want a Banksy that badly?" and they said, "No, but I want one for $60!" And who can blame then when those pieces (suitably certified by Pest Control, I guess) are now estimated to be worth $250,000 each? "It plays into that fantasy people have of going into a thrift store and buying a painting and a piece of paint flakes off and there's another paining underneath and you discover a lost DaVinci! It's the last bit of dreaming we have left in a culture that promised the American dream," claims Carlo.

(Since the days of Santa's Ghetto, Banksy has himself become a kind of alt.Santa. If he visits your property - or a Bristol Youth Club - and paints on your wall.... kerching!)

While I don't dream in American, we all live in a capitalist culture for the time being (until the chimps take charge) and I too can relate, totally. Had I seen that stall in Columbus Circle, I doubt I would have identified its classic Banksy images as being from the spray can of the master his bad self as there are so many fakes about and they are stencilled, FFS. It's not like these are sophisticated images, like my tasteful three colour screenprint, and I probably would not have forked over forty-odd quid for something I could pick up in Camden for a tenner, but wouldn't, because bogus Banksys are naff. One guy, who bought four, made little such aesthetic judgement. He just wanted something to put on his walls. Now his four pictures are worth a million! I paid nothing for miBanksy, but got it because I liked that cheeky monkey and have enjoyed his mischievous message daily for a dozen years. Unsigned and not certifiable, it wasn't worth megabucks. But now, it seemed, I might be the owner of an original Banksy sketch for what was a crucial work in the artist's developing oeuvre!

Except that the dates don't match. The internet told me that the Old Street piece went up in 2002 and, presumably, not in the depths of winter, so that was well over a year before Santa's Ghetto at which, mojo on the UAA forum informed me, the print edition was for sale. So, this was certainly not a preliminary sketch. Whether or not it was drawn by the hand of Banksy is a matter of speculation. 'The sketch certainly looks like it's done in Banksy's hand,' reckoned Nuart Festival, 'so rather than a pretty much worthless 'test' print, you have an original sketch.' 'That drawing on the back of the print is of a standard that I would want to see by an accomplished artist, very fluid and not forced at all,' said cjp. 'By Banksy, I do not know, but I think it looks bang on and what you would hope to see.' But mojo - not being a killjoy, just keeping it real - pointed out, 'the sketch on the back could of been doodled by anybody working at the show.' What we are all agreed on is that only one man knows for sure. Or possibly two.

I got in touch with Mog to see what he knew. He came back to me promptly, saying, 'I read an article about Banksy's agent who made it big in NYC and I recognised the guy in the photo as Steve, who organised the show and came to our offices afterwards to give us the prints. Here's a very recent article about him - I would suggest that you get him to authenticate as I've heard this is now essential in order to get a proper valuation (presumably loads of fakes doing the rounds). But be aware that he seems to have fallen out with Banksy which may or may not help you...!'

Steve Lazarides, who split with the artist in 2007, curated an Unauthorised Retrospective of Banksy's work at Sotheby's in the Summer of 2014 and, in January 2015, sold his own copy of the Laugh Now screenprint at Bonhams on 28 January, 2015, for £20,000. I wondered if that made Lazarides a parallel authority to Pest Control when it came to authentication, but the one response I received from several galleries that advertised copies of Laugh Now for sale, was negative: 'Laz authenticating it now won't carry a lot of weight TBH,certainly not to me. Banksy hasn't dealt with him in 10 years and Pest Control really is the only authentication that counts to the market now,' said Andy from Belfast.

I gave 'Laz' a go, anyway, and tried Pest Control again, too. I e-mailed that poor quality pic of its back to both and await a response. I may wait in vain, but I won't wait for long. I'm going offline for ten days or so now, leaving miBanksy with a photographer who can take better pictures. When I return, miBanksy, complete with its mysterious doodle on the reverse, will very likely be offered for sale on eBay. If the buyer collects it from me in person s/he can satisfy themselves of its quality before the deal is finally done, so they don't have to just take my word, but can use their own discernment. Without Banksy's signature, it may not be worth what a dealer would characterise as a decent sum, but it is actually a highly desirable, genuine Banksy screenprint, so will appeal to those who are fond of Banksy's work as art first, rather than a rapidly appreciating investment. How much I can get for it, however, remains anyone's guess...

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