The art world has a public relations problem. Every time a story emerges of billionaires engaging in secretive deals, a phalanx of commentators conflate facts to invent a narrative of cultural malfeasance. The latest is this Bloomberg View story that mashes up some half facts into a theory that say concludes, “the legitimate art market increasingly resembles the underground one for stolen paintings.”
Leonid Bershidsky takes the fact that the Yves Bouvier owns and operates freeports, combines it with Ulrich Boser’s theory that the Gardner Museum’s stolen paintings have been used as underworld markers for decades and gives us an art investment scheme that “deprives” the world of its masterpieces. Unfortunately, each element of the story is wrong in the real facts.
The works of art Bouvier is accused of over-charging his client for were not held in the freeports. The Leonardo that first stirred the oligarch’s suspicions was displayed in a London museum show of Leonardo’s work, thus gaining its authenticity and bought through Sotheby’s private sales division. The Modigliani and Rothko at issue were also in private collections not known to be held in storage indefinitely.
Nonetheless, we get this which also misunderstands the priorities of insurers and those who make loans against art collections:
The real problem is that the works on which Rybolovlev has spent more than $2 billion in the past 10 years, including the Modigliani and a $186 million painting by Mark Rothko, are not exhibited anywhere that you and I can see them. They populate so-called freeports, glorified warehouses where art can be stored tax-free. Wealthy collectors sometimes do deals in the showrooms within the freeports, showing each other paintings most museums would kill for. But that’s the extent to which these works are seen.
Tax exemptions are not the only reason that art sits in freeports. Insurance companies get spooked when an expensive collection is kept in a house, vulnerable to a heist or some disaster that might destroy more than one masterpiece. Besides, a painting stored in a special facility can be used as collateral for a bank loan more easily than one on your wall.
It all makes perfect sense, and Bouvier, who owns and builds freeports, has been doing brisk business.
Today’s Art Market Hides Masterpieces (Bloomberg View)