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August 2, 2014

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Neighbors foil attempt to steal wall, Banksy mural

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AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

A passer-by peers into a plywood barrier now protecting a mural by the artist Banksy, in New Orleans, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014.

NEW ORLEANS — Neighbors in New Orleans foiled what police say was an attempt to steal a chunk of cinderblock wall bearing a painting created by the world-renowned graffiti artist Banksy.

The building's owner called police Friday evening, saying someone was attempting to cut out the painting, which Banksy had created after Hurricane Katrina, said Officer Garry Flot, a police spokesman. By the time of that call, he said, 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 British artist, who is perhaps the world's best-known street artist. Banksy's works have sold at auction for as much as $1.1 million. He came to New Orleans as Hurricane Gustav was heading toward Louisiana. The images he left were generally related to the 2005 hurricane, Katrina. Well known in New Orleans, they have been the subject of news articles in the past.

Many have since been painted over or destroyed. This one shows a mournful girl holding an umbrella from which rain pours onto her as she extends a cupped hand into the open air around her.

Word of activity at the site appeared Friday afternoon on Facebook, 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 recounted.

She got home and posted a photo with the message, "Bye Bye Banksy! My neighborhood'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," Lapeyrouse, operations manager at Louisiana Fresh Produce, said Tuesday.

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," Lapeyrouse said.

"I left and came back and called the police and called every authority I could think of in the city," he said.

There are differing accounts of when police were actually notified. 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."

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 p.m., and the first officer was sent about 7:45 p.m.

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 Lapeyrouse stuck around in case they came back. More neighbors showed up. Lapeyrouse said he also tore down the plywood screen.

John Guarnieri, office manager at an architectural firm and a board member of the Bywater Neighborhood Association, said eventually a former tenant of the building arrived and was able to give the name of the owner's attorney.

Flot said that after the owner contacted police, they began an investigation. However, the identities of the suspects remain unknown.

Neighbors said a guard hired by the owner arrived Friday evening. A guard was still there Tuesday. 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. 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 told The Associated Press in an email that there "are currently no plans announced to include the work of Banksy in an exhibition."

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