Men seen prying Banksy painting from building wall

The first sign that something wasn’t right at Kerlerec and North Rampart streets came on Friday when the plywood curtain went up.

It only became more obvious that something was wrong when neighbors poked their heads behind the impromptu barrier and saw four men using power tools to chisel out “Girl With Umbrella,” a painting by Banksy, a secretive British graffiti artist, director and political activist who is known for covertly creating paintings around the globe, completing the pieces and leaving before anyone can spot him.

Some neighbors asked the men who they were and what they were doing.

The men claimed they had orders to remove the painting, one of more than a dozen stencil paintings the artist did around the city in 2008, and take it to a museum, but they could not provide details about what museum and could not produce any documentation or permits related to the work.

Photographer Charlie Varley said he became interested when he saw a picture of the scene posted on Facebook.

“I thought, ‘That’s kind of an interesting story for the British newspapers,’ ” he said, and made his way to the block.

He arrived at the corner and saw what looked like a legitimate operation.

“It seemed they were doing it legit,” he remembers thinking when he saw the plywood barrier. But then he went around it and noticed there were no support structures in place to keep the building from coming down once the possibly load-bearing cinder-block wall was removed.

One man who stood on a ladder with a power tool said his name was “Chris,” a “private art handler from Los Angeles.”

Varley said that “Chris” — who did not want to give a last name — claimed the artwork was to be sent to London for a Banksy retrospective in April at the Tate Modern art gallery and that it would be reinstalled in New Orleans after the show.

The Daily Mail, a London newspaper, said gallery officials denied that statement and said they do not have any Banksy exhibition scheduled.

For about 10 minutes, “Chris” allowed Varley to snap photos of him working.

Then, almost instantly, his attitude changed.

“You got enough f------ photos?” the man shouted at Varley. “I think you got enough now. Can you go?”

“I left thinking this was all very, very strange,” Varley said Monday.

After being confronted by neighbors, the unidentified men packed up their gear and left, WWL-TV reported.

Officer Hilal Williams, a New Orleans Police Department spokeswoman, said the men drove away in a white, 10-foot-long Budget rental truck.

Robert Abdalian, an attorney for Mantua LLC, the building’s owner, said Monday the removal of the painting, which was protected for years behind Plexiglas, was not authorized.

After Friday’s action, he said, security guards were stationed at the corner to watch over the site to prevent any other unauthorized work.

The building’s owners were trying to decide their next steps, he said.

“Obviously there’s structural damage,” Abdalian said. “There’s a hole in the building.”

Police said they are looking for two men. They described one as white, between 25 and 35 years old, about 6 feet tall with a medium build, a short haircut and clean-shaven.

The other is described as a white man between 25 and 35, about 5-foot-9 with a stocky build, medium-length hair and clean-shaven. He wore a Home Depot apron and cap, police said.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Crimestoppers at (504) 822-1111.