Two men arrested over alleged theft of new Banksy artwork in London

Two men were arrested in London this weekend, suspected of stealing a new Banksy art installation on the very same day that it was unveiled.

The work, featuring three drones overlaid on a traffic sign in Peckham, South London, had been confirmed as a new creation by the anonymous graffiti artist. Banksy, whose work has fetched more than $23 million dollars at auction, shared a series of photos on Instagram around midday local time (7 a.m. ET) Friday.

But witnesses told the PA Media news agency that they saw two men removing the “STOP” sign from the street junction where it was being displayed around 12:30 p.m. using bolt cutters.

The two men were arrested on Saturday and Sunday respectively, London’s Metropolitan Police told CNN in a statement — both “on suspicion of theft and criminal damage.” One remains in custody, with the other released on bail.

“This guy comes up and grabs it, we watched in awe,” one witness to the incident told PA Media, having come across the artwork after seeing Banksy post about its debut on social media. “We said ‘what are you doing?’ but no one really knew what to do, we sort of just watched it happen. We were all a bit bemused.”

The man appeared to take the sign away. - Aaron Chown/AP
The man appeared to take the sign away. – Aaron Chown/AP

“He ripped it off and ran across the road and ran away. He said nothing,” the witness continued. “He didn’t seem to care that much about the art itself.”

The alleged theft is still under investigation, the Metropolitan Police told CNN, appealing for anyone “with further information about the incident or the whereabouts of the sign” to get in touch. The road sign itself has since been released, the police added — but without Banksy’s touch.

PA reported that Banksy himself is not thought to be behind the removal of the artwork.

The mysterious artist is known to confirm his works on social media without providing any further comment.

Some have interpreted the latest piece as a call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict, given that Banksy is known to support the Palestinian cause.

The artist owns a hotel in the city of Bethlehem, which is located a few steps from Israel’s imposing separation barrier that runs through the occupied West Bank.

Banksy opened the Walled Off Hotel in 2017 to draw attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it bills itself as the hotel with the “worst view in the world.”

Though the market value of his work has soared in recent years, Banksy continues to produce works in public spaces that make their preservation near impossible — and even invite theft or defacement.

“Spy Booth,” one of Banksy’s most famous murals, depicting three secret agents surrounding a phone booth with recording equipment, was destroyed in 2016.

And in February this year, an abandoned freezer forming part of an artwork that had appeared in the English town of Margate was taken away just hours after Banksy confirmed the piece as his.

In 2018, meanwhile, the artist famously destroyed one of his own works. The painting in question, of a girl with a red balloon, shredded itself moments after selling at auction for $1.4 million.

CNN’s Lianne Kolirin, Zeena Saifi, Nadeem Muaddi and Alex Rees contributed to this report.

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