“Slave Labour” by Banksy was on the wall of a Poundland shop in Wood Green, London. Photo: Getty
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Stealing Banksy? Meet the man who takes the street art off the street

Tony Baxter has become the go-to guy for anyone wanting to shift – and flog – a Banksy mural.

Art curators aren’t usually the targets of hate mail and death threats.

But then Tony Baxter (who has received messages informing him “there's a bullet with your name on it” and whose staff are regularly accused of being thieves who “are going to die of cancer”) isn't your average custodian of culture.

The former model, investment banker and cross-Channel swimmer has become the go-to guy for anyone wanting to shift – and flog – a Banksy mural.

It all started when “Slave Labour” was painted on the side of a Poundland shop in Wood Green, north London, just before the Queen's diamond jubilee in May 2012. A few months later, the work, featuring a boy hunched over a sewing machine stitching union flag bunting, had been chainsawed off the wall before vanishing.

“No one knew where it was, and our whole goal as a concierge is that we're supposed to be the best-connected network in London,” says Baxter, in his first proper interview.

The director of The Sincura Group, which aims to fulfil every whim of its VIP members, adds: “It just so happened that a client said, ‘find the answer to ‘Slave Labour’’. The council did bugger all; they just sat there and drank tea.”

Sincura located the work in a Miami auction house and flew it back to London to see if a buyer with at least £900,000 in spare change could be found so the street art could be kept in the UK.

The Sincura name was splashed across the media and Baxter says he now gets about ten emails a week from people asking him to remove what they assume to be Banksys from their buildings.

The 39-year-old son of a Cambridge academic has since overseen the “salvaging” of three other murals across Britain and has got hold of a further five.

They form what is the most expensive collection of the artist’s work ever assembled under one roof – the Stealing Banksy? exhibition, which opened at the ME London hotel today. The show concludes on Sunday when all the pieces go under the hammer (total estimates stand at £5m).

Baxter does not own any of the works, and he insists he has never made a penny in profit from the sale of any piece taken from a building, nor has he ever approached anyone to remove one.

What he does get is “a small management fee that covers just a fraction of my staffing and insurance costs”; a strange kind of kudos for his company; and “a good way to entice people” to buy the Banksy canvases he sells, where he does get a cut.

Baxter also has ethical conditions that must be met. The owners must be intent on removing the piece regardless; they must have at least one non-financial motive (for example, fearing a grade II listing as a result of the graffiti); and he insists on some kind of charitable donation.

Has Baxter had any contact with the man himself? “I, I, I can't comment on any of my involvement with Banksy,” he says. It is the only time he hesitates.

The works are being taken from communities and will likely end up in an plutocrat's mansion. But he claims: “We're restoring these for ever. In 100 years’ time, or 1,000 years’ time, when these are the old masterpieces they may have become, they’ll still be around. We can’t stress enough – if you're going to do it, do it properly. You wouldn’t take the Mona Lisa and chop it in half.

“At the end of the day, we sleep easy at night knowing that what we’re doing is legal. It may not be the most ethically sound – but it is the lesser of two evils.”

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Leader: Mark Carney — a rock star banker feels the heat

Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith.

On 24 June, the day after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom resembled a leaderless state. David Cameron promptly resigned as prime minister after his humiliating defeat. His closest ally, George Osborne, retreated to the safety and silence of the Treasury. Labour descended into open warfare; meanwhile, the leaders of the Leave campaign appeared terrified by the challenge confronting them and were already plotting and scheming against one another.

The government had not planned for Brexit, and so one of the few remaining sources of authority was the independent Bank of England. Its Canadian governor, the former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Carney, provided calm by announcing that Threadneedle Street had performed “extensive contingency planning” and would not “hesitate to take additional measures”. A month later, the Bank cut interest rates to a ­record low of 0.25 per cent and announced an additional £60bn of quantitative easing (QE). Both measures helped to avert the threat of an immediate recession by stimulating growth and employment.

Since then the Bank of England governor, who this week gave evidence on monetary policy to the economic affairs committee at the House of Lords, has become a favoured target of Brexiteers and former politicians. Michael Gove has compared Mr Carney to a vainglorious Chinese emperor and chided him for his lack of “humility”. William Hague has accused the Bank of having “lost the plot” and has questioned its future independence. Nigel Lawson has called for Mr Carney to resign, declaring that he has “behaved disgracefully”.

At no point since the Bank achieved independence under the New Labour government in 1997 has it attracted such opprobrium. For politicians faced with the risk, and the reality, of economic instability, Mr Carney and his colleagues are an easy target. However, they are the wrong one.

The consequences of loose monetary policy are not wholly benign. Ultra-low rates and QE have widened inequality by enriching asset-holders, while punishing savers. Yet the economy’s sustained weakness as well as poor productivity have necessitated such action. As Mr Osborne consistently recognised when he was chancellor, monetary activism was the inevitable corollary of fiscal conservatism. Without the Bank’s interventionism, government austerity would have had even harsher consequences.

The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly taken the opportunity to “reset” fiscal policy. He has abandoned Mr Osborne’s absurd target of seeking to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 and has promised new infrastructure investment in his Autumn Statement on 23 November.

After years of over-reliance on monetary stimulus, a rebalancing is, in our view, necessary. Squeezed living standards (inflation is forecast to reach 3 per cent next year, given the collapse in the value of sterling) and anaemic growth are best addressed through government action rather than a premature rise in interest rates. Though UK gilt yields have risen in recent weeks, borrowing costs remain at near-record lows. Mr Hammond should not hesitate to borrow to invest, as Keynesians have long argued.

The Bank of England is far from infallible, of course. In recent years, its growth and employment forecasts have proved overly pessimistic. Mr Carney’s immediate predecessor, Mervyn King, was too slow to cut rates at the start of the financial crisis and was ill-prepared for the recession that followed. Central bankers across the developed world, most notably the former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan, have too often been treated as seers beyond criticism. Their reputations have suffered as a consequence.

Yet the principle of central bank independence remains one worthy of defence. Labour’s 1997 decision ended the manipulation of interest rates by opportunistic politicians and enhanced economic stability. Although the Bank’s mandate is determined by ministers, it must be free to set monetary policy without fear of interference. The challenge of delivering Brexit is the greatest any British government has faced since 1945. Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith on this epic task.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage