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The stolen Banksy of Fisherman’s Wharf: An art mystery

A painting of a rat is seen on a door.
“Wharf Rat,” thought to be a Banksy painting, sits in San Francisco police storage at an undisclosed location. The painting on a metal door reemerged in 2021 as part of an online auction. | Source: Courtesy Cosmic Wire

In an evidence lockup somewhere inside a San Francisco police building is a white metal door with stenciled graffiti art on it: a rat wearing star-shaped sunglasses, holding a shovel. 

The door has been sitting in police storage for over three years since it surfaced online in murky circumstances involving an auction of digital tokens known as NFTs. Who removed the door from its original home on Fisherman’s Wharf? No one knows. Who owns it? That’s a matter of ongoing dispute. How much longer will the police keep it? That’s also unclear. 

But the biggest mystery of all—or at least the most consequential – revolves around who painted it. If, as many experts believe, it’s the work of the reclusive British graffiti artist known as Banksy, it could be worth millions of dollars—making all the other mysteries surrounding it that much more intriguing.

Banksy’s 2010 San Francisco visit

Banksy is believed to have visited San Francisco in May 2010, around the time his Oscar-nominated documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” played at the Sundance Film Festival. He left at least six graffiti paintings in his wake, according to media reports at the time.

A May 1, 2010, KQED story shows photos of paintings at 853 Valencia St., 2140 Mission St., 1672 Haight St., 1309 Howard St., on Commercial Street near Grant Avenue and in an empty parking lot at Erie and Mission streets.

Four appear to have been painted over in the years since. “The Haight Street Rat” was removed in December 2010 and was preserved in 836M, a nonprofit art gallery. One Banksy, a painting of a boy in a gas mask, is still visible at Columbus Avenue and Broadway in North Beach above a building.

A graffiti painting is seen on a brick wall.
Banksy's Peaceful Hearts Doctor was painted on the side of 720 Grant Ave between Commercial Street and Sacramento Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown district in April 2010. | Source: Courtesy Alan Phoon

Images of a seventh possible Banksy along the city’s waterfront surfaced on May 3, 2010, when photos of the Wharf Rat painted on a storage locker at Pier 43 ½ were posted on a Flickr account.

Banksy’s authentication team, known as Pest Control, has never officially authenticated the Wharf Rat. Requests for comment from Pest Control went unanswered.

The ‘Wharf Rat’

The door with the Wharf Rat painting was stolen in 2013, according to a police report. Thomas Escher, whose Red and White Fleet marine tour company is based at Pier 43 ½, filed the report on Jan 30, 2017. His dock is directly behind the metal utility box the rat painting first appeared on. Escher said he reported the apparent theft after he saw the painting listed for sale online. 

A painting of a rat is seen on a door with a boat in the background.
Banksy's Wharf Rat on a metal door near Pier 43 ½ in San Francisco in 2017. The painting reemerged as part of an auction before being seized by the SFPD and the FBI. There's now an open investigation into who stole it in the first place. | Source: Courtesy Alan Phoon

The painting resurfaced in December 2021. This time it was being auctioned at a starting price of $700,000, along with hundreds of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, of it, police reports and a Port of San Francisco legal document obtained by The Standard show. An archived version of the auction website is still viewable online.

Los Angeles-based artist and NFT-curator Roberto Baek was behind the auction, police say. However, he has not been identified as a suspect or person of interest in the possession of stolen property case, which is still under investigation. Baek did not respond to multiple requests for information on how he came into possession of the apparent Banksy. 

The auction offered the painting along with a unique NFT of it and 333 other NFTs priced at .033 Ethereum (a cryptocurrency), or around $129.48 each at the time based on data from Yahoo finance. The sale of the 333 would have netted a total of $43,117.49 in Ethereum, which by publication time would be worth a little less. 

Owner of 3DScanLa Studios, CJ Parent, said Baek brought the painting into his studio to be 3D scanned and that he scanned it on Oct. 31, 2020, but said Baek did not mention anything about who owned the door or where it came from. Parent said he later learned about “the controversy surrounding the door” and declined payment for scanning it.

A graffiti painting is seen on a wall with the Transamerica Pyramid in the background.
Banksy’s mural, known as “If At First You Don’t Succeed—Call An Airstrike,” is painted on the side of a building in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in 2010. | Source: Courtesy Alan Phoon

“Some kid doing NFTs brought it to my studio for his client(s),” Parent said in a March 17 Instagram direct message. “Upon finding out about the controversy surrounding ‘the door’ I thought it would be in my best interest not to even charge for my services as I don’t want anything to do [with] either party.”

The auction appears to have been shut down on its final day, with the organizers cryptically citing an “ownership claim” as the reason they had to call it off.

“Because of circumstances outside of our reach involving a sudden ownership claim on the artwork we need to seek our lawyer in order to explore the legal minefield of the project,” read a Dec. 19, 2021, post on the auction’s page on X.

San Francisco Police Department and the FBI later repossessed the painting, internal Port records obtained by The Standard show.

The FBI later said its involvement was “minimal” and that SFPD was the lead agency in recovering the artwork.

Police said they are storing the painting in an undisclosed location and are investigating who stole it.

What’s unknown

While there is a paper trail outlining the painting’s decade-plus history in San Francisco, much still remains shrouded in mystery.

When reached by phone, Escher said he didn’t remember where the painting was initially listed for sale or any other details about its planned sale.

Escher also said he didn’t remember why he waited four years to report the painting’s disappearance.

It’s unknown if money ever changed hands during the 2021 auction, whether for the hundreds of NFTs or the painting.

Police declined to tell The Standard anything about when, where or how they got the painting back, or why it took nearly five years for them to get it back after its theft was first reported.

A graffiti painting of a rat is displayed in a museum.
Cultivate 7twelve executive director, Fiona Bond, right, and development director Liz Taylor, left, look over an exhibit entitled "Haight Street Rat," a 2010 piece of street art by British artist and art provocateur Banksy, on Sept. 12, 2018, in Waco, Texas. | Source: Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald/AP Photo

Perhaps most unnervingly, it’s unknown if the painting is an authentic Banksy. Copycats have been seen in San Francisco, including the 2017 appearance of a fake Haight Street rat painting after the original had been taken down.

The Port has been trying to authenticate the painting since February according to emails reviewed by The Standard, but has not provided any updates on when it expects to know if the painting is a real Banksy or not.

Sotheby’s won’t appraise the painting or even provide an estimate unless it can access it and list it itself, but a similarly-sized 2003 Banksy painting of a rat on a piece of wooden palette sold for $802,904 at a 2022 Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. Another San Francisco Banksy, “The Haight Street Rat,” measured seven by seven-and-a-half feet and was estimated to be worth $2 million.

What’s next?

While the painting is out of the hands of thieves and in the hands of law enforcement, there is a dispute between Escher and the port.

Escher claims that he owns the painting because it was made on a storage closet of the pier he leases from the port, while the port claims in internal emails that it believes it owns the painting.

Despite this, both Escher and the port share a common goal: They want the painting to be displayed for the public’s enjoyment, if it proves to be a real Banksy.

A graffiti painting of a rat is seen on a door.
Banksy's "Wharf Rat" on a metal door sits in storage at an undisclosed location. The painting reemerged as part of an auction before being seized by the SFPD and the FBI. There's now an open investigation into who stole it in the first place. | Source: Courtesy Cosmic Wire

The port has said in internal emails that it does not plan to sell the Wharf Rat. Escher, meanwhile, says he would donate it to the city, with one condition.

“I want to give it to the port or the city with the agreement that if they ever sell it or put it up for auction that my blood descendants have the option to buy it,” he said.