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Neighbors to Auction House: 'Give Our Graffiti Back'

Friday, 22 Feb 2013 | 11:21 AM ET
A man takes a phone photo of an artwork attributed to Banksy on May 17, 2012 in London, England.
Peter Macdiarmid | Getty Images
A man takes a phone photo of an artwork attributed to Banksy on May 17, 2012 in London, England.

The online catalog for this weekend's sale at Fine Art Auctions Miami prominently features "Slave Labor (Bunting Boy)," depicting a young sweatshop worker sewing Union Jacks. And why not? The work, a typically provocative stencil by the reclusive (and hot) British artist Banksy, is estimated to go for $500,000 to $700,000 this Saturday.

One problem: the neighborhood on whose wall Banksy sprayed the work wants its graffiti back.

The stencil appeared outside a store in the Turnpike Lane district of London last May, as England ramped up for Queen Elizabeth II's jubilee. Banksy's jab at the commercial aspects of the patriotic celebration drew visitors who were often seen taking photos of the piece in the working-class area.

(Read more: World's Largest Trove of Tiny Cars Goes to Auction)

Then last week, workers removed the stencil, leaving a patch of new concrete where the small mural had been, on the side wall of the local Poundland—a bargain chain. The stencil soon turned up on FAAM's site.

Poundland denies knowing anything about the work's removal, and the building's owner isn't talking, so the district's council is appealing to the auction house to return the work. "We understand that there may be nothing illegal in the way this artwork was quietly removed from our streets and put up for auction by you in Miami," the council said in an open letter to FAAM's director of European evaluations, Frederic Thut.

"But for you to allow it to be sold for huge profit in this way would be morally wrong, and completely contrary to the spirit in which we believe it was given to our community."

The neighborhood's plea is a turnaround for the artist, whose work is more commonly painted over or otherwise removed by local authorities as a nuisance. Banksy has not commented on this latest disappearance, but overnight Friday a new piece appeared on Poundland's wall: a stencil of a rat holding a sign reading, "Why?"

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.