(Photo: Jae Thomas)

If you’ve ever dreamed of finding a briefcase full of money on the street to help pay off looming student loans, the escape from a slow death by debt might just be sitting on the sidewalk on the corner of Bowery and Great Jones.

A block away from a private parking lot sits a sign advertising quick parking, but what it might really be advertising is an instant small fortune. On the back of the freestanding sign is a black and white geometric painting–and it looks a lot like a piece by street artist Retna, whose work has sold from between $10,000 and $180,000. 

Could your launch into upward mobility be achieved by discretely dragging the parking sign, which must be a good 50 pounds, into a cab and finding somewhere to sell it?

But first, is it actually a Retna? With street art produced at random times in unauthorized locations, often to maintain the anonymity of the artist, it can be hard to know what’s real and what’s fake. “That does look like Retna,” said Rick Rounick, owner of Soho Contemporary Art, which specializes in numerous street artists. “But if there’s no signature, I can’t really tell. I can’t authenticate it.” 

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Other local galleries aren’t convinced by the parking sign’s lettering (Retna is known for his bold heiroglyphic-esque script, as seen in his Houston/Bowery mural back in 2012). “As far as we can tell we don’t believe that this is Retna,” said a representative from HG Contemporary Gallery, which features Retna in their collection. “[It’s] a painting style unlikely of his hand. It isn’t his typical calligraphy; the one element that is Retna, but seems borrowed, are the dots.” 

Whether or not the Bowery parking sign is an authentic Retna, it’s interesting to wonder what could happen if you took a piece of public art, and how much it might sell for. We asked art and intellectual property lawyer Leila Amineddoleh.

“When an artist paints on something public, it doesn’t convert the ownership,” said Amineddoleh. “The original owner will still own the property, but the big question is whether the artist now owns the IP (the copyright or trademark) associated with the art that was placed on the property.”

Aminddoleh explained that while the artist may not have any physical property rights since the art was created illegally, the owner of the property holds the rights to the art. That means if you decide to steal street art created on other people’s property, you may find yourself as the defendant in a grand larceny case.

(Photo: Jae Thomas)

According to New York state legal code, grand larceny is a class D felony if the value of the stolen items exceeds $3,000—and it can come with a seven year prison sentence. If the value of the stolen goods is over $50,000, the crime is a class C felony and the max sentence is 15 years.

Ownership of street art is a tricky business. Many times it is created illegally on other people’s property, like Banksy’s painting of a rat on the clock of a building in Chelsea, which was eventually removed by the building’s owners. Building owners are mostly allowed to do what they wish with the property and the art on it—and that can mean destroying it, hiding it, or selling it to the highest bidder.

In some instances, however, graffiti can be considered a protected form of art when it “has enough artistic stature.” This was the case in 2018, when street artists were awarded $6.7 million in damages after the developer of the 5Pointz complex in Long Island City painted over dozens of murals that were created on the sides of buildings. 

Anyone thinking about stealing the (faux?) Retna piece would be working on a tight deadline. Although it was still there Thursday evening, Gustavo Sanchez, the manager of the Lafayette Street Edison Park Fast, said that the parking sign will be replaced with a new one this week. “I’ll change the sign with a new one and deliver the old one to the main office,” he said. “It’s up to them what to do with it.”

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