THE dreary grey warehouses have been described as looking like the place where beauty goes to die but inside is a treasure trove of stunning artworks.

The buildings may look unassuming yet they contain more priceless paintings than any of the world’s museums.

This is the controversial free port of Geneva, where the rich store their art away to save tax.

It is one of four free ports in Switzerland and four more have opened recently in other parts of the world, raising concerns they are being used as a haven for money laundering and stolen goods.

The huge increase in high value artworks being stored in free ports has also led to complaints that they cannot be viewed, perverting the reason they were created in the first place.

“Treating art as a commodity and just hiding it in storage is something that to me is not really moral,” says contemporary art collector Eli Broad, owner of a Los Angeles museum.

“Works of art are created to be viewed,” says the Paris’s Louvre director, Jean-Luc Martinez, adding that free ports were the “greatest museums no-one can see”.


AS well as work by the old masters, contemporary art is spirited away to the free ports almost before the paint is dry.

It is a practice that is in danger of putting creativity “intellectually almost in a coma,” according to Joanne Heyler, director of California’s Broad Museum.

Originally set up in the 19th to store goods like tea and grain, the free ports have evolved over time as storage space for the mega-rich who want to dodge sales tax on their valuable art investments.

For example, if a masterpiece is sold at auction in the US for £40 million, the tax bill of around £3.5m will vanish if the painting is taken immediately to a free port.

The result of this dodge is over 1.2m artworks stored in Geneva alone. Of course, paintings on the walls of the sumptuous villas of the super-rich cannot be viewed by the public either, but the sheer number and value of the items stored in the free ports is staggering.

In Geneva, it is estimated that there are around 1,000 artworks by Picasso and other old masters, as well as antiquities dating back at least as far as ancient Rome, stored in this way. There are also around three million bottles of wine on top of the gold bars and art.


IN addition to the tax savings and controlled climate, the free ports offer confidential record-keeping which has led to concerns about what exactly is being stored.

In January this year, detectives from the Italian Carabinieri arts crime squad, with permission from the Swiss authorities, mounted a raid on a unit at Geneva Free Port rented by UK antiquities dealer Robin Symes.

Inside they found a haul of looted artefacts, most of which is thought to have been stolen from the Roman and Etruscan era archaeological sites by the Medici gang. Prizing open 45 crates, the detectives uncovered 17,000 artefacts worth hundreds of millions of pounds which included rare Roman and Greek pottery, pieces of a Pompeii fresco and a marble head of the god Apollo believed to have been stolen from the Baths of Claudius near Rome. This last item alone is valued at £30m.

Also, this year a £20m Modigliani painting allegedly seized by the Nazis was found in Geneva’s free port.

A criminal investigation has been mounted by Swiss prosecutors into how the Seated Man With A Cane came to be stored at the free port. It was reportedly stolen during the Second World War from Parisian art dealer Oscar Stettiner but, according to the Panama papers, the current owner is avid art collector David Nahmad who claims he bought it in 1996.


THE bad publicity generated by the finds has resulted in some regulatory action by the Swiss authorities.

The country’s former finance minister David Hiler has been put in charge of the Geneva free port and is attempting to improve its international reputation.

Reforms being put in place include a biometric system to track and identify visitors and random customs checks. To make sure that valuables looted from war zones like Syria are not stored in the warehouses, experts are investigating any new requests to store ancient artefacts.

“We won’t rent space to a company that we don’t know who is behind it,” Hiler said. “We don’t want clients that are shell companies or blind trusts.”

Some clients are reacting by storing goods in the new free ports which have sprung up in recent years in Delaware, Luxembourg, Monaco and Singapore.

It is a worry for the Swiss, who see the free ports as an important part of the economy, and there is no doubt the art market is proving to be very lucrative. Although global arts sales dropped by seven per cent last year they were still worth $63.8 billion, up more than 60 per cent since 2009.


THERE is no doubt that free ports are here to stay, as they offer security and protection for the precious goods and are seen by some as a better alternative to hanging above a smoky fireplace in a private home.

Some commentators have suggested the free ports could operate more like museums and open their doors for displays of the collections – but it seems highly unlikely that such a suggestions would ever happen due to security issues.

Many artists accept the free ports as a necessary evil.

Contemporary artist Julia Wachtel says: “Ideally, I would like my work to be on display rather than in storage but people buying art is what keeps artists alive.”