Ambitious thief attempts to steal wall covered with Banksy graffiti
Neighbours in New Orleans foiled what police say was an attempt to steal a chunk of cinderblock wall bearing a painting created by world-renowned British graffiti artist Banksy.
The building's owner called police on Friday evening saying someone was attempting to cut out the painting which Banksy had created after Hurricane Katrina. By the time of that call two suspects were gone and the mural, known locally as Umbrella Girl or Rain Girl, was still there. The painting and the long holes that had been cut around it are now shielded by plywood.
The mural is among more than a dozen made in 2008 in New Orleans by the elusive artist whose works have sold at auction for as much as £660,000.
He came to New Orleans as Hurricane Gustav was heading towards Louisiana but the images he left were generally related to the 2005 hurricane, Katrina.
Many have since been painted over or destroyed. Umbrella Girl shows a mournful girl holding an umbrella from which rain pours on to her as she extends a cupped hand into the open air around her.
Word of activity at the site appeared on Facebook on Friday afternoon, with pictures showing a wide gap above the painting. The work was going on behind a plywood screen.
Photographer Cheryl Gerber had noticed the plywood hiding the painting not far from her house earlier in the day while driving home from an assignment. She asked a man sitting at the back of a nearby rental truck what was going on.
"He said, 'Oh, the picture is going to London for a big show'," she said.
She returned home and posted a photo with the message "Bye Bye Banksy! My neighbourhood's most famous little girl is moving to London".
Clay Lapeyrouse was alarmed when he saw a Facebook picture of the activity. "It just didn't add up to me. The whole scenario seemed off," the operations manager at Louisiana Fresh Produce said.
It was his day off, so he went to take a look for himself. When he asked to see a permit for work on the vacant building, the two men could not provide one. They told him the building's owners wanted to send the painting to a museum. "They couldn't tell me who the owner was or the name of the museum," Mr Lapeyrouse said.
"I left and came back and called the police and called every authority I could think of in the city."
There are differing accounts of when police were actually notified. Mr Lapeyrouse said that the first time he called, a 911 dispatcher told him "they sent someone out there already and the gentleman told them the same story they had told me".
Police spokesman Officer Garry Flot meanwhile, said the only record for a call reporting an attempted theft at 1034 North Rampart Street was from the owner about 5.15 pm and the first officer was sent at about 7.45 pm.
Mr Lapeyrouse said he stayed as long as he could, but finally left to get his dogs from day care. When he returned the men had gone, but he stayed in case they came back. More neighbours arrived and Mr Lapeyrouse said he also tore down the plywood screen.
John Guarnieri, office manager at an architectural firm and a board member of the Bywater Neighbourhood Association, said eventually a former tenant of the building arrived and was able to give the name of the owner's lawyer.
Officer Flot said that after the owner contacted police, they began an investigation but the identities of the suspects remain unknown.
Neighbours said a guard hired by the owner arrived on Friday night and a guard was still there yesterday. A new plywood shield was erected, keeping the painting out of reach.
New Orleans resident Charlie Varley, who is interested in art and grew up south of London, also saw the man chopping at the wall. Mr Varley said the man told him he was a Los Angeles "art handler" working for the building owners, who were sending it to the Tate Modern - one of four Tate museums holding Britain's national art collection.
Tate spokeswoman Jeanette Ward said there "are currently no plans announced to include the work of Banksy in an exhibition".