Who Owns Street Art? Missing Banksy Mural Sparks Debate

Anne-Laure Bandle

It would not be surprising if a mural on government surveillance that went missing last month turned up for sale on the art market.

The Spy Booth artwork in the town of Cheltenham in England, created by British artist Banksy, was removed from the wall it had lived on for two years. The mural, which attracted lots of tourists, was granted a protection last year by the Cheltenham borough council that ensured that no one could remove the work.

David Possee, the owner of the wall where Spy Booth was featured, and who was once offered more than 1 million pounds for the mural, denies having sold it. He claims instead that it was accidentally reduced to rubble by workmen carrying out repairs.

If the mural does turn up at an art auction, it wouldn’t be the first to do so.

Another Banksy mural, Slave Labour, was auctioned for $1 million after it had gone missing from Wood Green neighborhood in northern London. The record prices reached for street art such as Banksy’s is a recent phenomenon.

Banksy's "Slave Labour" â€" Photo: DeptfordJon

The sale of street art removed from public spaces emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, the famous charcoal drawings of artist Keith Haring were stolen from the walls of New York’s subway stations as soon as they appeared. The growing popularity of street art is partly due to the fashion world, museums and advertising campaigns that have appropriated the artform.

Legally speaking, the sale of street art raises a number of questions. Who is responsible for the protection of street art? Who is the real owner of the piece and who has the right to sell it? In principle, unwanted graffiti and collages belong to the owner of the building they were drawn on. This rule was confirmed by a high court judgment about an ownership dispute over Banksy’s Art Buff last year.

The ownership right must be differentiated from the copyright and the right of reproduction. The French street artist Invader was unsuccessful in convincing the criminal court in Paris that removing his work from walls to sell it on the market was an infringement of copyright. He argued that distribution of his work was an act against his will. The court dismissed his claim, saying that the defendant had always considered his artwork an illegal attachment. Furthermore, the artist could not prove that his piece had been taken down with the intention to sell or distribute it.

One of Invader's pieces, near the Eiffel Tower â€" Photo: Guilhem Vellut

There is no reliable way to authenticate street art, making the sale of it problematic. Some dealers and auction houses avoid selling street art at all for this reason. Until it closed down, the authentication committee of the Keith Haring Foundation refused to validate any of Haring’s drawings in subway stations. Banksy’s authentication committee did not certify Banksy’s artwork by explaining that the works were never intended for marketing.

Courts will likely continue to hear many more cases about the removal of street art until there’s legal clarity about the phenomenon.

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Chinese Students Now Required To Learn To Think Like Xi Jinping

'Xi Jinping Thought' ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.

Children from Congtai Elementary School, Handan City, Hebei Province

Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.

Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."

Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!

Communist curriculum replaces global subjects

This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.

Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?

The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

photo of books on a book shelf

Books about Xi-Jinping at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA

— Photo:

Targeting pop culture

The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.

What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.

A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.

Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.

Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.

"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."

Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.

Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.

From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."

Die Welt
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