The Null Device
As their ranks and fortunes grow, the world's super-rich have been ploughing increasing amounts of money into buying art, often motivated primarily by its investment value; a Picasso, you see, is not so much a pretty object to hang on the wall of your grouse-hunting lodge in the Scottish Highlands, but rather a sort of high-denomination banknote. As such, airports in countries like Switzerland, Luxembourg and Singapore are sprouting networks of high-security art warehouses for storing their wealthy clients' collections; these remain airside, where import duties are not payable, and now are sprouting facilities to make it easier for the artefacts (which, for legal purposes, are still “in transit”) to be exhibited (though only to potential buyers, not members of the great unwashed):
The goods they stash in the freeports range from paintings, fine wine and precious metals to tapestries and even classic cars. (Data storage is offered, too.) Clients include museums, galleries and art investment funds as well as private collectors. Storage fees vary, but are typically around $1,000 a year for a medium-sized painting and $5,000-12,000 to fill a small room.
The early freeports were drab warehouses. But as the contents have grown glitzier, so have the premises themselves. A giant twisting metal sculpture, “Cage sans Frontières”, spans the lobby in Singapore, which looks more like the interior of a modernist museum or hotel than a storehouse. Luxembourg’s will be equally fancy, displaying concrete sculptures by Vhils, a Portuguese artist. Like Singapore and the Swiss it will offer state-of-the-art conservation, including temperature and humidity control, and an array of on-site services, including renovation and valuation.
The idea is to turn freeports into “places the end-customer wants to be seen in, the best alternative to owning your own museum,” says David Arendt, managing director of the Luxembourg freeport. The newest facilities are dotted with private showrooms, where art can be shown to potential buyers. To help expand its private-client business, Christie’s, an auction house, has leased space in Singapore’s freeport (which also houses a diamond exchange). The wealthy are increasingly using freeports as a place where they can rub shoulders and trade fine objects with each other. It is not uncommon for a painting to be swapped for, say, a sculpture and some cases of wine, with all the goods remaining in the freeport after the deal and merely being shifted between the storage rooms of the buyer’s and seller’s handling agents.