Have you ever passed a series of warehouses near La Praille (and the Geneva airport) and wondered, “Hmmm, what’s in there?” Unlikely. These drab and basic buildings look like self-storage, or plain office space. Or perhaps something related to shipping or trade, indicated by the “Ports Francs” signage. In other words, zzzzzz.
However, the next time you pass by these buildings, you might consider what’s inside their walls, rather than their exterior. In fact, the Geneva Freeport (Port Francs), is home to the largest art and luxury good collection anywhere on Earth.
Think the Louvre has an impressive collection, with its 380K works (35K of which are on display)? Or NYC’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), with its 200K pieces of modern and contemporary art? Fair enough. But neither can hold a candle to the Geneva Freeport in terms of sheer scale. The Freeport has an estimated 1.2 million works of art, including 1000+ Picassos, masterpieces from van Gogh, Monet and Bonnard, and thousands more. The art alone (valued at more than $100 billion) only makes up about 40% of the Freeport’s contents. There are also more than 3 million bottles of wine, priceless antiquities, fine jewellery, gold bars, carpets, cigars, you name it.
But first, let’s back up and explore the history of the Geneva Freeport. Why was it created in the first place? The Freeport was founded in 1888, and its initial purpose was to decrease barriers to trade (ie. transactional events where customs or taxes could be levied). The idea was that, while any item (traditionally food/agricultural products, tobacco and alcohol) was being held in a freeport, it was considered “in-transit” and therefore not subject to VAT and other customs charges/tariffs. These kinds of economic enclaves have a more relaxed set or laws/rules to follow, compared to their host country.
Over the past 100+ years, as the stored items have shifted away from grain and towards art/valuables, it’s worth a look at who owns them. It’s not a single museum or institution. Rather, it’s many investors, art dealers, collectors, and off-shore entities (whose transparency can lean towards opaque). These individuals/groups rent storage space in the Freeport, and benefit from its unparalleled security, climate control, ancillary services (like art authentication), and of course the surrounding stability of Switzerland and its strong Swiss franc.
Fine art is now often considered as just another asset class, and beyond the oversight (or lack thereof) at the world’s freeports, there’s an argument to be made about the purpose of art itself. Is it moral to lock up so many treasures, never to be seen or enjoyed again by the public? One of the only ways for the public to see just a sliver of the pieces stored in the Geneva Freeport is to visit Art Basel. Many of the works on display there are otherwise kept in the Freeport the rest of the year.
These warehouses have now become long-term storage for investors, rather than temporary holding facilities. The art, watches, wine, Etruscan sarcophagi and other treasures sit in their crates until it’s time to be sold again. Some haven’t been moved since the 1970s. The items can change hands without ever physically leaving the network of freeports, and (thanks to Swiss traditions of privacy, discretion and opacity), no one really knows what exactly is being stored and by whom.
But, among these millions of precious items, could there be ample opportunity for shadiness? Tax evasion/fraud, money laundering, looted artifacts, and more? Yes, the Freeport has definitely put a dent or two in Geneva’s reputation. After a couple of high-profile scandals in the ’90s and 2000’s, the Swiss government stepped in to improve transparency and accountability. Since 2016, in particular, laws and oversight have tightened. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that freeports in other parts of the world (with less financial regulation/reporting) are booming. Yes, the Geneva model has been exported abroad. Large facilities (focused on art) have opened in Singapore (2010), Luxembourg (2014), Beijing (2014), and Monaco (2013).
The brief documentary below outlines some of the recent history of the Geneva Freeport, and some of the key figures in the development of the facility, and in the art world itself.
We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to learn more about our activities and excursions, visit our website at http://www.aiwcgeneva.org/