BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Christians flocking to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus have been joined this year by a new kind of pilgrim — British lovers of "street art" coming to worship their hero, Banksy.
Wearing fashionable clothes rather than standard-issue sandals, they are easy to spot outside the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born. But these visitors are not interested in that Messiah. They are more concerned with an auction of art by Banksy being held in a disused fried chicken restaurant on the other side of Manger Square.
With originals by Banksy, a secretive British artist renowned for quirky graffiti, now commanding astronomical prices, some aficionados have traveled all the way to the Holy Land to get a bargain. The auctioneers are only accepting written bids, which must be submitted in person, before the sale on Christmas Eve.
"The response has been amazing," said Tristan Manco, 41, of the Santa's Ghetto exhibition and sale. "The flight from London gets in about dawn, and when we open at 9 a.m., there are British people already here who have come straight here from the airport."
A 43-year-old self-employed graphic designer from Darlington, Gary Shove, flew over for just two days. "Having to come all this way really strips this art down to what it's all about which, in my opinion, is making you aware of things that you normally would not be aware of," he said. "I had no awareness whatsoever about Bethlehem, where it was, who controlled it, where it stands in the Israel-Palestine question. ... I have had the experience of my life."
Banksy came to Bethlehem three weeks ago to see the show and daub a few walls around town with his take on the Israel-Palestinian Arab issue.
While the al fresco pieces are intended to decay in situ, the items in the sale include paintings, prints, sculptures, and other pieces like a cherub oozing blood after being crushed by a rock.
Written bids worth $500,000 have reportedly been received already. The money will be donated to children's charities in the Palestinian Arab territories.
Famously secretive, Banksy is believed to have only given one newspaper interview, although he has left various clues indicating he is a secondary school dropout from the West Country who was born in or around Bristol in 1974. A recent auction in October earned more than $1 million for 11 pieces, four times the pre-sale estimate.
In a message to the Telegraph relayed by his spokesman, Banksy described his graffiti as "vandalism" and said he was happy it was helping the economy of Bethlehem this Christmas.
"I like the idea vandalism has contributed to the local economy," his message said. "In Britain they always complain graffiti costs the taxpayer millions of pounds, but that's a load of rubbish.
"Graffiti is free. It's painting things gray again that costs all the money."