Who owns street art?

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Becky Shaw, solicitor, Boodle Hatfield

Banksy’s ‘Art Buff’ was created on a leasehold property and subsequently removed by the tenant and taken to the US for sale.

The claimant, an arts charity called The Creative Foundation, took an assignment from the landlord of the title to the Banksy and the right to claim for its return, and brought proceedings against the tenant asserting ownership of the piece.

The claim was approached in terms of whether the landlord or the tenant had the better claim to the Banksy once removed, it being a valuable part of a leasehold property removed during the course of repairs by the tenant.

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Surprisingly, there was no precedent for this but the court considered what relevant authority there was in deciding that the landlord had the better claim to ownership of Art Buff. By assignment, the Creative Foundation was therefore entitled to the return of Art Buff and is now arranging for the work to go on public display.

The case provides a useful precedent and is likely to be considered in other cases involving street art. However, had the Folkestone property been freehold, the freehold owner would have been entitled to remove the Banksy, and only Banksy himself would have been able to stop him by, for example, asserting his moral rights, which would have meant revealing his closely-guarded identity.

However, in another ownership dispute that hit the headlines in 2014 Banksy found a way to intervene while retaining his anonymity.

When ‘Mobile Lovers’ appeared on a doorway in Bristol the leader of nearby youth club took it away hoping to sell it to raise money for the club. Bristol City Council, however, argued that the work was theirs as it was on their land, and it was taken to a museum for safekeeping.

Banksy wrote to the club stating that he painted the piece as “a small visual gift for the area” and that while he does not usually admit to “committing criminal damage”, as “a great admirer of the work done at the club” it had his blessing “to do what you feel is right with the piece”.

After the signed note had been authenticated the club reportedly sold the piece and shared the proceeds with other voluntary youth clubs across Bristol.

It is clear from these two examples that the facts of each case will need to be considered to determine what act ion can be taken, if any.

With the increasing value of street art, more cases of this nature are likely to arise, which may help to provide further clarification on the ownership of street art.

Law less ordinary | The world of art law