“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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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser