When Inigo Philbrick And I Tried To Cut A Banksy Out Of The Wall It Was Painted On

To be a good art dealer you need to be both prescient and manipulative. The mere ability to spot a trend or an artist is not enough. You have to know how to get what you want from the situation, to buy early and hold your nerve. That I never had this instinct can be evidenced by the fact that when I went to the British street artist Banksy’s Christmas pop-up, Santa’s Ghetto, in December 2004, I bought two prints for £100 each. I took them home, stuck one on my wall with drawing pins in the full glare of a south-facing window, and the other I promptly lost to the murky gods of the underbed. Today, in good condition, those prints would be worth upwards of £150,000. Each.

When I told Inigo [Philbrick] this story he almost fell off his chair laughing. The art world at the time cared little for Banksy and I suspect the feeling was mutual. Inigo, however, sensed opportunity. One afternoon in the autumn of 2007, he emailed me an image of a pair of metal doors. The email contained no text but the subject line read, “Call me when you’ve seen this.” At first I was confused. The doors looked ordinary, grubby. The photo was blurry but when I zoomed in I noticed at the bottom of the door on the left what appeared to be a Banksy rat wearing a baseball cap and holding a beatbox on its shoulder.

When I arrived at the rat’s location in east London half an hour later, it was dark and raining. I found Inigo sitting on a low wall, huddled under an umbrella and glued to his BlackBerry. “I’ve found the owner on the Land Registry,” he said flatly, “but I don’t think that’s the way to do this. What we want to do is find whoever’s in charge of the building and offer to replace the doors and bang him some cash. Say five grand for the door and 10 for the guy? We want him to feel incentivised.”

“Where are we going to get £15,000 from?”

“We’ll figure all that out,” said Inigo dismissively. “The important thing is to get in with our offer quickly and keep the building guy quiet. We don’t want him finding out what it could be worth.”

“How much do you think it’s worth?”

“I won’t know until we hear back from my guy at Phillips, but I would guess upwards of £50k.”

Inigo and I returned early on a Saturday and the building, which housed offices and design studios, was quiet. Through the plate glass windows we could see a cleaner at work and a security guard dozing off. He shuddered awake as I pushed at the locked glass doors. I smiled broadly. He levered himself out of his chair, all 6ft 6in of him.

“Hi,” I said cheerily. “Are you the building manager?”

“Yes.” And then after some consideration he said, “Sometimes.” That was good enough for me.

“We’re interested in your doors.”

We walked around to the back of the building, Inigo keeping a few paces behind, failing to suppress a grin. The man looked at the doors and then back at me. “So what do you want? Is there something wrong?” he asked.

“We collect street art,” I told him grandiloquently. “We want to buy the doors for that rat.” He looked at me like I had suddenly broken into song.

Inigo stepped forward and interjected. “We’re happy to pay for them to be replaced. And to give you some cash if you could help us make this happen.” The man stared at Inigo and then back at me before he crouched down in front of the door and inspected the Banksy rat. “You really want this?” he asked, looking up at us both. “I’ll have to talk to the building manager.”

“I thought you were the building manager?” I said.

“I’m just the night manager. Stuff like this,” he said, pointing to the rat, “has to go through him. Must be worth something to you, all this effort … ” He trailed off. “You’ll have to come back on Monday.”

The following week, Inigo called. “They fucking fucked us, dude. The door. It’s gone. I went past just now and there are some guys putting in new doors.”

Weeks later, Inigo and I were walking home from a night out when his pace quickened. “I found something you need to see.” We quickly reached a motorbike shop in Clerkenwell with an empty lot beside it. Inigo turned to show me the side wall. The render was a patchy white and a large area had been haphazardly rollered with grey paint. On top were four stencilled black and white figures – older people’s faces atop bodies dressed in youthful streetwear. One, a woman with hair rollers and a chain, sat on a 1980s-style beatbox. Above, sprayed in hot pink paint, were the words OLD SKOOL.

“I’m not 100% it’s a Banksy yet,” Inigo said after letting the impact of the reveal land; even drunk on a wet street late at night, Inigo instinctively knew how to show an artwork. “I’ve sent an image to David.” (David was a fellow student at Goldsmiths and Banksy obsessive who managed to write almost all his essays, no matter the question, about Banksy.)

“I mean, this is great,” I said hesitantly, “but it’s on a fucking wall. A door was one thing, but this is different.”

“I know. But it has to be doable, right? Has to be. Think of all those frescoes they move in Italy. And those things are fucking ancient.” In the mustardy light of the street lamps I couldn’t read his expression. Surely he was joking. “We’d need a financial backer,” he continued. “I have someone in mind. The father of a high school friend. It’ll be expensive, but it could be very lucrative.”

The next few weeks were a roiling mix of anxiety and excitement. The Phillips street art specialist assured us there would be buyers for such a piece through their private sales division. The only problem was getting it off in one piece.

After Inigo secured the backing – “Thirty thousand with the possibility of an additional 20 if we need it. Then we split the upside” – we hit the phones. Nervous of a repeat of what happened before, I described what we wanted to do in the vaguest terms I could muster.

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“We’ve got this wall,” I would start out. “It’s a brick wall, made from London bricks. Probably Victorian? Then there’s a layer of concrete on top of that” (I felt like I was describing a cake) “and on the concrete is a painting. Can you remove the painting?” This was usually met with silence, sometimes more vocal consternation, and other times just the dead end of a dial tone. Those few people I could keep on the phone for long enough to explain what we were trying to do soon hung up when I told them we didn’t own or even have access to the building in question.

Eventually, I called a builder I knew called Joe who’d done some work on my mother’s house a few years previously. Inigo and I arranged to meet him in Clerkenwell after the scooter shop’s business hours.

“Well, there’s your first problem,” Joe told us, patting the middle of the mural.

“What is?” I asked.

“It’s not level, is it? It’s painted over the chimney jamb, look.” We looked. The back of the building’s chimney protruded over the middle of the mural, something neither of us had noticed before. “That’ll make it a lot trickier to remove,” Joe continued. “You’d have to do it in stages, then stick it back together. Five chunks. Not straightforward at all.”

At that moment we heard a clattering sound close at hand and a tall, meaty man poked his head round the corner. He held a set of keys in one hand and a motorcycle helmet in the other.

“Can I help you guys?” The three of us froze, caught in the act.

“Hi,” Inigo said trenchantly. “We were admiring your mural. What are our chances of buying it?”

“You’re too late, I’m afraid,” the man said. “Oddly enough someone bought it just last week. Funny. It’s been there for years and no one’s ever even asked about it, then two people inside a week. German fella bought it. Going to have it removed first thing in the new year.”

“Would you mind me asking what he paid you for it?” Inigo asked. “We might be able to make you a better offer.”

At this, the man stood up from his scooter and seemed to grow taller, wider. “He paid the owner of the building £1,000. As far as I’m concerned that’s the end of it.” He had started to put on his helmet when Inigo interjected.

“We could pay the owner £5,000, and there’d be something for you, too, of course. Cash?”

“Look, mate,” he said. “I just run the bike shop, but the owner isn’t the kind of man to go back on a deal. It’s not going to happen, all right?” And with that he fastened his helmet and sat down heavily on his scooter, driving it slowly in Inigo’s direction. For the briefest of moments there was a standoff, but then Inigo stepped out of the way and the man rode off into the evening.

Inigo turned to me and rolled his eyes. “Fuck,” I said by way of reply.

I felt utterly deflated. It had been a long while since our first deals and I felt sure that Inigo would soon lose interest in our friendship. I was coming to see that he was a strange mix of fierce determination and an easy-come-easy-go attitude. It wasn’t until years later that I realised this was the perfect way for an art dealer to be. So many potential sales come to nothing that disappointment is an inevitable aspect of the job. I took defeats too personally; setbacks stick in my skin like thorns. But for Inigo, they seemed only to spur him on.

This is an edited extract from All That Glitters: A Story of Friendship, Fraud and Fine Art by Orlando Whitfield, published on 2 May by Profile Books at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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