Artcurial charity auction cancelled after work showing Palestinian activist is pulled

French press partners pull out of sale “in the name of freedom of expression” following lobbying from Israeli embassy


Artcurial has cancelled a charity auction amid claims of censorship by Israel. The Paris-based auction house has announced that the sale, Artists on the Front Page, will no longer go ahead on 27 January, “by mutual agreement” with the organisers, the French newspaper Libération and press freedom advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontières. The newspaper says it ended the partnership “in the name of freedom of expression” after Artcurial bowed to pressure from the Israeli embassy to withdraw a work depicting a Palestinian political prisoner.

The work, by the French street artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, reimagines the front page of Libération from 12 November 2004, the day after the burial of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Pignon-Ernest overlaid a portrait of the activist Marwan Barghouti in handcuffs with the words: “In 1980, when I drew Mandela, I was told he was a terrorist.” Barghouti, the former leader of Arafat’s Fatah movement in the West Bank, was arrested by Israel in 2002 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2004 on five murder charges.

The work was exhibited among almost 40 redesigns of Libération front pages by artists including Tania Mouraud, Bernar Venet, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris on 12 and 13 December.

According to Le Monde, in late December the Israeli embassy to France asked Artcurial to pull the lot from the sale in an email calling the portrait “a terrorist project” because “it implies that this is a man of peace”. The embassy wrote that the work “strongly risks sowing confusion and harming [Artcurial’s] reputation”. François Tajan, the deputy chairman of the auction house, granted the request, Libération reports. The auction house said in a statement posted on its Twitter account that “in the context of the extension of the state of emergency” after the Paris attacks, the need to balance “the imperatives of guaranteeing public order and of freedom of expression” led to the agreement with Reporters Sans Frontières to cancel the auction.

Christophe Deloire, the secretary-general of Reporters Sans Frontières, told Le Monde: “This work is in no way an apology for terrorism and it belongs legitimately to the project Artists on the Front Page. We have therefore decided to do the sale elsewh ere and stay true to our principles.”

Libération said: “New solutions to maintain this charity sale are under discussion.”