Only 8% of the works of art owned by private collectors can be seen in museums. 60% are in private homes or in offices and office corridors. The remaining third remains hidden in warehouses, in bank vaults and in so-called hidden museums (known in the world as free ports).
Both the European Union (through a directive already in force) and the Spanish Government have set out to put an end to the irregularities that surround them in many cases. In Spain, the Ministry of Economy will present a draft bill that modifies the law on the prevention of money laundering and financing of terrorism at a forthcoming Council of Ministers, according to sources from that department.
It will regulate, among others, the activities of those who “act as intermediaries in the trade of works of art when they carry it out in free ports.” The text, which transposes the European directive, will arrive at Congress “this spring.”
Visiting these facilities is another ingredient of a certain social glamor, that which is attracted by the aroma of secrecy and access with biometric identity cards to contemplate how the owner extracts van goghs , kahlos , picassos , bacons , mirós from the cabinets , warhols or basquiats.
Christopher Nolan introduced the hidden museums in one of the central sequences of his latest film, Tenet . The protagonist does not consider the robbery in a museum, but to circumvent the sophisticated security measures of one of those luxury armored places (actually, it was filmed in an art center in Tallinn, Estonia).
The one in Geneva, the most important of Switzerland’s hidden museums , occupies the same floor space as the Louvre and houses nearly a million pieces of all kinds, including antiques. They are followed in importance by those of Singapore and Luxembourg, although there are others in Delaware, Monaco and Beijing.
Since their use became general, at the beginning of the last decade, they have a double face: They are very useful for the logistics and storage of works in transit, in addition to having the most advanced conservation and security techniques, so they provide an irreplaceable service to collectors, museums, galleries and auction houses.
The dark side is associated with tax fraud and money laundering, and it came to light in part with the Panama Papers scandals linked to the Nahmad family and their Nazis looted modigliani (the son, David, has just been pardoned by Trump); the trafficking of antiquities that served to finance ISIS or the case of Yves Bouvier, the carrier and dealer, owner of the Natural Le Coultre company, shareholder of the port of Geneva and promoter of the Singapore port, who in 2015 was accused of fraud against the Russian magnate Dmitry Rybolovlev.
So many scandals led the EU to issue a directive against money laundering , which came into effect on January 1, 2020. On the balance sheets of 2019, the hidden museums of Geneva and Luxembourg (now called the Luxembourg High Security Hub or Center of Luxembourg High Security) recorded more than 3% losses, waiting to account for the ravages of the covid. The two directors who have just arrived in office have declined to be interviewed by EL PAÍS.
Oddný Helgadóttir, professor of political economy at Copenhagen Business School, is the author of the report that served as the basis for the European directive. “There are,” he says, “a variety of potential advantages in free ports. For collectors, dealers and other holders of large-scale art, they offer a storage space with convenient conditions in terms of light, humidity …
For those who have switched to investing in tangible assets due to the abolition of bank secrecy, They offer duty free storage. For someone looking to store pieces secretly and anonymously, such as in a divorce dispute, they might be useful to hide those pieces. And those who are dedicated to the trade of cultural objects of illegal origin or contraband use them as spaces outside the law ”.
The EU has approved a directive against money laundering, which also affects ‘hidden museums’.
In many cases, transactions take place on the spot: cadres only change vaults. In European territory, a registration of owners is required from the entry into force of these regulations starting at 10,000 euros, the marking of shell companies and a maximum storage of six months.
The economist, however, does not believe that the EU directive has affected hidden museums so much. “It did not classify them as financial entities, which means that the rules are quite lax and that they could be toughened.”
John Zarobell, head of International Studies at the University of San Francisco, has analyzed the gray area of the market and the use of art as something strictly financial. He regrets that “much of the heritage is removed from the public sphere, degrading its cultural value.”
He does not dare to give a figure for the value of the invisible works of a market that in 2019 moved more than 60,000 million euros, and doubts that “China and the United Arab Emirates harmonize their laws with the regulations of the EU or the British. ”
He does not believe that after Brexit British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will create a “Singapore-Upon-Thames” of art, and both he and Helgadóttir frame free ports of art or hidden museumsin broader economic trends and a greater concentration of wealth.
“To put it less technical, it means there is a larger group of very wealthy people looking for alternative forms of investment,” Helgadóttir says. That also includes cryptocurrencies, gold, wine, or tech stocks.
The hidden museums also allow store owners pieces on whose value can borrow money. Zarobell points out another recent practice: in many private transactions and even in some public auctions the work is sold before the bid to an offshore company (that is, installed in a tax haven) for a guaranteed minimum price and if the final bid is more high, they split the difference.
The public looks at the works that achieve records, but what happens with those that are not sold? They can be stored without tax cost as assets awaiting their moment.
These invisible museums have also encouraged a new trend: fractional collecting. It is about buying a fragment of an Andy Warhol painting as if it were a share of a company. Warhol is, according to that mentality, a blue-chip , a solvent and reliable asset in times of uncertainty.
This work will be stored and rented or sold in due course. Numerous platforms, such as the pioneer Maecenas Fine Arts of Singapore, but also auction houses, offer to buy shares of works with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.
The Open University of Catalonia and the Autonomous University of Barcelona have created a technology, Bart, to facilitate its purchase and sale thanks to bitcoin, which allows to follow the trace of the work by its authors, certify the authorship at a time of rise of non-presential exhibitions and save intermediaries.
It is as if the philosophy that inspires the world of cryptocurrencies has reached the art market. And not only in its economic aspect, but also in the creative one: the most expensive work inspired by bitcoin is Block 21 , by Robert Alice, bought last year for 108,307 euros at Christie’s, 322,048 digits of Satoshi Nakamoto’s original code for Bitcoin distributed in all forty paintings in the Portraits of a Mind series , so that no collector will ever own the entire code.
Does it have a future or is it fashion? An art consultant doubts it: “I would rather have a Picasso drawing hanging on a wall at home than a piece of the best Leonardo da Vinci stored in a place I will never see.”