A nearly colorless free port zone close to the Geneva city center, with its compound of gray warehouses surrounded by train tracks and barbed-wire fences, looks like the last place on Earth where one could find something beautiful. Yet, neatly tucked away within its walls, somewhere around a million of some of the most exquisite artworks ever made are crated and sealed in cramped storage vaults.
Concealed and incarcerated in wooden cases of the Geneva freeport, treasures of art history are hidden within miles of identical corridors with faceless locked metal doors. Whilst there, these artworks are not the property of a single institution or art-crazed individual - no, they are the possessions of an unaligned group of art dealers, collectors and offshore companies, all of whom enjoy the anonymity and prison-like security provided by the Swiss facility.
The reason why someone would choose to keep their prized possessions in such conditions is a simple one - the world's financial elite is increasingly investing in expensive stuff, and freeports are becoming their repositories of choice. Freeports offer security and confidentiality, the ability for owners to hide behind aliases or false nominees, and an array of tax advantages.
Here is a closer look at the Geneva freeport, arguably the most interesting port of its kind. How does such a facility function, and what impact does it have on the art world as a whole?
In order to construct a complete picture of how freeports work, we need to present you with some numbers. The legendary Museum of Modern Art in New York City possesses almost 200,000 artworks of varying types and quality, a truly overwhelming number of pieces.
However, this is comparatively nothing to what's reportedly held in windowless warehouse complexes in south-west Switzerland.
The term "reportedly" is important here as nobody actually knows exactly how many works of art are stored in the Geneva freeport. The facility's chairman often states that there are about a million of artworks over there, but New York Times says the number is nearer to 1.2 million. And that's just one freeport.
The next question comes naturally - why do so many owners insist on keeping their artworks locked away? Well, this too can be explained with numbers - if someone buys a $50 million painting at an auction in New York City, he or she is looking down a barrel of a $4.4 million sales tax bill. By shipping the purchased piece to a freeport, owners see to it that the tax bill disappears, at least until time to bring it back to the States comes about.
Freeports originated in the 19th century when they served the purpose of temporary storage for goods like grain and tea. In the last few decades, a handful of them (including the Geneva’s one) have increasingly come to operate as lockers for the superrich.
Located in tax-friendly countries and cities, freeports offer savings and security that collectors and dealers find irresistible. This special taxing treatment is possible because goods in freeports are technically in transit, even if in reality the ports are used more as permanent homes for whatever's stored inside them.
Aside from offering enormous potential for tax savings, freeports also have climate control that ensure the artworks of high-net-worth buyers are protected in good environments, usually under video surveillance and behind fire-resistant walls.
Evan Beard, who advises clients on art and finance at U.S. Trust, often speaks about how art collectors view freeports:
For some collectors, art is being treated as a capital asset in their portfolio. They are becoming more financially savvy, and free ports have become a pillar of all of this.
The idea of freeports fundamentally becoming giant treasure chests was pioneered by the Swiss, as they're the ones who have half a dozen freeports - in Chiasso, Geneva and Zurich, for instance. The Geneva one is the biggest of them all and it houses luxury goods in two sites with floor space equivalent to 22 football pitches.
Because most art objects at this facility is brought in and out of storage spaces quietly, it's difficult to know precisely what artworks are being kept in Geneva freeport. We do know with certainty about a few pieces which are currently held at this location.
There are the rare Etruscan sarcophagi, archaeological treasurers that nobody moved since the 1970s. The $2 billion collection of the Russian billionaire Dmitry M. Rybolovlev, which includes a Mark Rothko, a Vincent van Gogh, a Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustav Klimt’s Water Serpents II, El Greco’s Saint Sebastian and Pablo Picasso’s Les Noces de Pierrette, is presumably stored here as well, although recent events that saw Mr. Rybolovlev sue his former art adviser may suggest the pieces were moved by now.
About 19 works by Pierre Bonnard, a master of Post-Impressionism, are owned by the Wildenstein family who prefer keeping these pieces in Geneva. Legal papers also suggest that there is a Picasso-made portrait of the Spaniard’s second wife, Jacqueline, along with 78 of his other works the artist's stepdaughter, Catherine Hutin, brought to the Geneva freeport in 2012.
By its own admission, the Geneva freeport has been used in the past by "undesirable tenants" to conduct illicit trafficking, something that was made very public a few years earlier when Italian police were given access to search the facility. The initial suspicion the police had turned out to be right - by the time they were done crowbarring the place, they found crates containing looted Roman and Etruscan antiquities.
Not only was this event embarrassing, it also created speculation that the Geneva freeport could be an unwitting base for illegal actions, with theories about what might be within the facility ranging from narcotics to full-blown terrorist conspiracies. However, new rules were quickly imposed, ones that aimed at stopping ill-gotten gains getting in the port.
Regardless of how much effort is being put into preventing such scenarios, the fact of the matter remains that, due to the very nature freeports conduct business, there are bound to be some illegal properties within the million or so artworks being kept in Geneva. This gives freeports as a whole, not just the one in Geneva, a bit of a bad reputation, but obviously it does not stop the rich from shipping their investments to these uncompromisingly secured locations.
Although prompting concerns about the use of these storage spaces for illegal activities might be troubling, the art world as a whole has a different bone to pick with freeports. More and more people are getting worried about the effect such wholesale storage has on art itself as the pieces sitting somewhere in a freeport and being treated as someone's investment might as well not exist.
Treating art as a commodity and just hiding it in storage is something that to me is not really moral.
Many masterpieces of art history have long lived outside of public view, either buried in the depths of basements at museums or tucked away in the private villas of the rich. However, being secretly hidden in a crate deep in a freeport might just be too much. The bottom line is that art is created to be viewed and when a piece enters the freeport protocol, it simply becomes unavailable to all but one person who, at the end of the day, probably does not even see it as art, rather opting to observe the piece as nothing more than an investment.
The director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, loves describing freeports as the greatest museums no one can see - and it's hard to argue with him. We all have to deal with the fact art has been a commodity for a very, very long time, but it's hard to accept some of the greatest artworks out there became a tradable stock that never needs to see the light of day.
At their worst, freeports represent a financial system in which investors have no connection to the art they buy, only really interested in them when the pieces are shifting from one owner's capital assets balance sheet to another's. We can argue about the meaning of art all day long, but this sure ain't it by anyone's standards.
Editors’ Tip: Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses Of The Art Market In The 21st Century
This book scrutinizes the excesses and extravagances that the 21st-century explosion of the contemporary art market brought in its wake. The buying of art as an investment, temptations to forgery and fraud, tax evasion, money laundering and pressure to produce more and more art all form part of this story, as do the upheavals in auction houses and the impact of the enhanced use of financial instruments on art transactions. Drawing on a series of tenaciously wrought interviews with artists, collectors, lawyers, bankers and convicted artist forgers, the author charts the voracious commodification of artists and art objects, and art's position in the clandestine puzzle of the highest echelons of global capital.
Featured image: The Geneva Free Port, by Fred Merz, made for The New York Times. All images used for illustrative purposes only.