One of the World’s Greatest Art Collections Hides Behind This Fence

Yes, say many in the art world. "Works of art are created to be viewed," said the director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, who described free ports as the greatest museums no one can see.

Some see even higher stakes for contemporary works, as they can be whisked off, their paint hardly dry, before ever entering the public's consciousness. Storage puts the art "intellectually almost in a coma," said Joanne Heyler, the director of the Broad Museum.

Not everyone agrees, pointing out that there is plenty of art in the world for people to see and that much art was created as private property. "Paintings are not a public good," said David Nash, a New York gallery owner.

Even so, some collectors whose businesses have come to depend on free port storage are a bit sheepish. "It is a shame," Helly Nahmad, a London dealer whose family is said to store 4,500 works in the Geneva Free Port, told The Art Newspaper in 2011. "It is like a composer making a piece of music, and no one listens to it."

So just what works are locked away? Because most art is tucked into storage spaces quietly, it is difficult to know what is where at any given moment.

But assorted legal disputes, investigations and periodic exhibitions featuring stored works have provided glimpses of specific pieces lost from view.

There are the rare Etruscan sarcophagi discovered in Geneva by the Italian police two years ago, found among 45 crates of looted antiquities, some still wrapped in Italian newspapers from the 1970s.

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Gustave Klimt's "Water Serpents II," looted in World War II and later recovered by heirs, sold for $183.8 million in 2012 to a Russian billionaire who put it in storage.

And the $2 billion collection of the Russian billionaire Dmitry M. Rybolovlev, which includes a Rothko, a van Gogh, a Renoir, Klimt's "Water Serpents II," El Greco's "Saint Sebastian," Picasso's "Les Noces de Pierrette" and Leonardo da Vinci's "Christ as Salvator Mundi."

(Mr. Rybolovlev is suing his former art adviser, a major free port operator in Geneva, and has since shifted his collection from Geneva to storage in Cyprus, according to court papers filed last year.)

Some 19 works by Pierre Bonnard, a master of Post-Impressionism, are owned by the Wildenstein family, one of the great art-dealing families of the 20th century, according to the former lawyer for the widow of the patriarch, Daniel Wildenstein.

And there is a portrait of Picasso's second wife, Jacqueline, by the artist, along with 78 of his other works, shipped by his stepdaughter, Catherine Hutin, to the Geneva Free Port in 2012, according to legal papers.

"If Jacqueline was alive and knew that her paintings were in the free ports, she would just be devastated," said Pepita Dupont, author of a book about Jacqueline Picasso.

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Picasso's "Garçon à La Pipe" ("Boy With a Pipe") disappeared after it was sold to an unknown buyer at a Sotheby's auction in 2004 for $104 million. Dealers suspect a free port is its likely new home. Credit Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Despite enhanced Swiss efforts to track inventory and ownership, the free ports there remain an opaque preserve (though more transparent these days than counterparts in places like Singapore), filled with objects whose ownership can be confoundingly convoluted.

Case in point: $28 million worth of works by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Joan Miró and others now stored in the Geneva Free Port. Equalia, a company registered by Mossack Fonseca (the law firm at the center of the Panama Papers controversy about how the wealthy conceal their riches), stored the works on behalf of a diamond broker, Erez Daleyot, in 2009. Once in storage, the art was used as collateral for debts Mr. Daleyot owed to a Belgian bank, according to court papers. Now a man named Leon Templesman, president of a New York diamond manufacturing company, Lazare Kaplan International, is trying to seize the art as part of a dispute with Mr. Daleyot and the bank.

Mr. Templesman said the free port's embrace of confidentiality made such seizures more complicated. The bank, KBC, said it ha d kept the art in the free port "out of precaution" and that it could not comment further on a matter involving one of its clients.

David Hiler, president of the Geneva Free Port, said that as a result of the audit, the Swiss were working to address concerns about lack of transparency. Come September, he said, all storage contracts will require that clients allow additional inspections of any archaeological artifacts they want stored there.

Collectors and dealers choose to store art in the free ports for more pedestrian reasons than tax avoidance. Some simply have no more room in their homes, said Georgina Hepburne Scott, who advises collectors. And in a free port, their property is protected in climate-controlled environments, often under video surveillance and behind fire-resistant walls.

"When it is brought to light, the work is preserved; it's not been hanging above a smoky fireplace," she said.

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Van Gogh's "The Olive Pickers" was once owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lawyers for a Greek shipping heiress are trying to trace it and a trove of other paintings, which they say was last seen in a warehouse in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Some warehouses also have viewing rooms where collectors can review their art and show it to potential buyers. This year, after voters in Geneva rejected a plan to expand the major art museum, a Swiss lawyer, Christophe Germann, wrote a newspaper column advocating wholesale sharing, arguing that free ports be forced to open their doors to let people see public displays of the private collections, a worthy trade-off for the tax benefits collectors receive.

For many living artists, meanwhile, the fact that their work might be stored away in a climate-controlled bunker has become part of the reality of doing business.

"Ideally, I would like my work to be on display rather than in storage," said Julia Wachtel, a contemporary artist who knows that some of her collectors occasionally store art.

At their worst, Ms. Wachtel said, free ports represent a financial system in which investors have no connection to the art they buy. But she also recognizes that storage warehouses allow responsible collectors to manage their works and their limited wall space.

"People buying art is what keeps artists alive," she said.

And at the end of the day, dealers say that most artworks eventually surface.

"Even if it stays there for the lifetime of the collector," said a New York dealer, Ezra Chowaiki, "it's not going to be there forever. It will come out."

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