Deutsch's 'Art Heist' may be art fraud, says JR

Artist at center of controversial fundraiser tells the Guardian he doesn't recognize the photograph the IPG agency auctioned as his

JR, the French artist at the center of Deutsch’s "Art Heist for Good" project, has finally broken his silence about the controversial fundraiser.

In an interview with the Guardian, the artist not only questioned the wisdom of the elaborate plan — a months-long effort to "steal" the artist’s work from a village in Kenya and auction it off for charity — but suggested the agency may have mistakenly auctioned off art that wasn’t actually his. 

"I couldn’t recognize the piece," he told the paper in an email interview. "I looked closer and I realized that it wasn’t the photo I took, but it’s the continuity of the work we did in Kibera in 2009."

Deutsch’s plan, as Campaign US reported earlier this month ("Deutsch steals art for charity, but crime doesn’t pay much"), was to remove JR’s famous-but-dilapidated Women Are Heroes photographs from the rooftops of Kibera, Kenya, then bring them back to the U.S. Here they would be auctioned off for an estimated $20,000 to $40,000 each, with the proceeds donated to WATERisLIFE, a Deutsch pro-bono client.

But the first piece of absconded art sold for less than $10,000 at a September auction in Los Angeles, casting the profitability of the effort into doubt. Complicating matters was Deutsch’s decision to remove the art without JR’s permission, despite the agency’s attempts to contact him. (The agency did have the cooperation of the Kibera villagers, it said.)

JR did not reply to Campaign’s requests for comment at the time. But he told the Guardian on Friday that the first photograph Deutsch auctioned off was most likely not produced by him. After finishing Women Are Heroes, JR formed a foundation that continued his work using the photographs of local children. The photograph that Deutsch auctioned was more likely taken by one of them, he said.

The artist, sometimes known as the "French Banksy," also expressed disappointment that two well-established organizations like WATERisLIFE and Deutsch would work so hard, and possibly endanger so many people, to make so little money.

"You have an NGO investing tons of their benefactors’ money to sell a piece at a small auction house for $10,000?" he says. "The idea was interesting but highly inefficient."

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