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Artist's burning-bank paintings are hot commodities

Alex Schaefer, whose images of banks on fire drew the attention of L.A. police, sells a 22-by-28-inch canvas to a German collector for $25,000. A 6-by-8 work later fetches $3,600 from a collector in Britain.

September 13, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Artist Alex Schaefer stands in front of the Chase Bank branch in Van Nuys that was the inspiration for his 22-by-28-inch oil painting depicting the structure on fire. He has sold the painting to a German collector for $25,000.
Artist Alex Schaefer stands in front of the Chase Bank branch in Van Nuys… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

An oil painting of a burning bank that sparked a pair of Los Angeles police investigations also ignited an international auction frenzy.

Artist Alex Schaefer has sold the 22-by-28-inch canvas depicting a Chase Bank branch in Van Nuys going up in flames to a German collector for $25,200.

The Internet sale on EBay attracted 70 bids. Surprised by the selling price, Schaefer quickly put a 6-by-8-inch painting of a burning Bank of America branch up for sale and sold it for $3,600 to a collector in Britain.

Schaefer's choice of subjects first drew police attention on July 30, when he set up his easel in front of the Chase branch at Van Nuys Boulevard and Sylvan Street.

"They told me that somebody had called and said they felt threatened by my painting," said Schaefer, 41, of Eagle Rock.

"They said they had to find out my intention. They asked if I was a terrorist and was I going to follow through and do what I was painting."

Schaefer said he explained that the artwork was intended to be a visual metaphor for the havoc that banking practices have caused to the economy. The two officers filled out a field report and departed.

"I figured that when they left, they probably decided the episode was stupid and they'd just wad up the form and throw it away," Schaefer said.

But on Aug. 23, two plainclothes detectives showed up at his house with more questions. "One of them asked me, 'Do you hate banks? Do you plan to do that to the bank?'" Schaefer once more explained what the painting symbolized.

Chase Bank officials were puzzled by the painting. "Hopefully, this is not what his actions are — it's kind of scary," bank spokesman Gary Kishner said last month.

Schaefer said a series of burning bank images he is painting will be displayed at a February show called "Disaster Capitalism" — a fitting title in light of his $25,200 sale.

The buyers of the paintings have invited Schaefer to visit them at their European homes. If he goes, he might paint some burning German and British banks, he said.

But first, Schaefer quickly added, he will research freedom-of-expression laws in both countries.

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