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Inside the Black Market for Taco Bell Store Art

SFGate reports on how prints commissioned 20 years ago are slipping off of walls and onto eBay
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 2, 2024 9:31 AM CDT
There's a Black Market for Taco Bell Art
A Taco Bell restaurant showing the signature Spanish-style arches and tile roof, designed by architect Robert McKay, at a store in Burbank, California in 2006.   (AP Photo/Ric Francis, File)

When artist Mark Smith pitched the idea of commissioning original work to Taco Bell executives in the early aughts, the expensive project seemed like a longshot. But they commissioned three of his abstract, Basquiat-style paintings, and prints of them began appearing in stores in 2003. Twenty years on, this story should be a blip on the chain's long branding and design history, but SFGate delves into an interesting twist: The prints have begun popping up on the black market—some to the tune of thousands of dollars. The first major incident involving the art came in 2015, when a theft occurred at an Ohio branch, per Artnet. It was estimated at the time that the painting was worth $800.

"I never expected this to happen," Smith tells SFGate, adding that he found the early reporting about it amusing because it sounded like "they were talking about the Mona Lisa." Since then, paintings picked out of the trash or slipped into vans when stores get renovated have popped up for sale—sometimes for eye-popping amounts (one on eBay is going for $10,000). SFGate followed the trail to find out who's supplying the illicit art, and learned of one potential source. "I don't want to get anybody in trouble," says one eBay seller, "but the gentleman I purchased it from renovates Taco Bells. And he says they throw these out sometimes now because they don't know what to do with them." (An artist lost his job after hanging his work next to some Picassos.)

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