Geneva Freeport

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Geneva Freeport
Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève
Geneva Freeport is located in Switzerland
Geneva Freeport
General information
Town or cityGeneva
Coordinates46°11′17″N 6°07′34″E / 46.1881°N 6.1262°E / 46.1881; 6.1262

Geneva Freeport (French: Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA) is a warehouse complex in Geneva, Switzerland, for the storage of art and other valuables and collectibles. The free port has been described as the "premier place" to store valuable works of art, and users "come for the security and stay for the tax treatment."[1]

It is the oldest and largest freeport facility, and the one with the most artworks, with an estimated art collection value of US$100 billion.[2] According to Jean-René Saillard of the British Fine Art Fund, "It would be probably the best museum in the world if it was a museum."[3]


The origins of the freeport can be traced back to 1888, but as it expanded in size, it adopted the "opaque traditions of Swiss banking", making it the preferred storage facility for the international elite.[4] According to an article in The New Yorker, Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier pioneered the freeport concept parallel to the art market, making his shipping company Natural Le Coultre the largest tenant at the freeport, with storage space rented in excess of 20 thousand m2 since 2013.[4]

Bouvier, dubbed the "freeport king", is the majority investor in the Singapore and Luxembourg freeports[5] and has been variously described as the owner of the Geneva Freeport, or its largest shareholder,[6] although in an interview in October 2016 he said he owned only 5% of it, with 85% of it being owned by the Swiss state.[7]

In 2013, the Freeport held about 1.2 million works of art, allegedly including around 1000 works by Pablo Picasso.[6] As well as art and gold bars, the facility contains about three million bottles of wine.[1]

In 2009, the first gallery inside the Freeport was opened by Simon Studer. Other galleries include those run by Sandra Recio.[1] In 2013, it was reported that a 10,000 sq m extension would open in 2014.[3]

Use in international art crime[edit]

In September 1995, Swiss and Italian police raided the building and uncovered 3,800 historic artifacts [8] worth an estimated $35 million [9] and arrested the art dealer Giacomo Medici. He was later found guilty of "receiving stolen goods, illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic" in May 2005.[8] This prompted authorities to re-guild the freeport and in 2009 a full inventory outlining ownership details was compiled.[2]

In 2013 nine antiquities looted from Palmyra in Syria and ancient sites in Libya and Yemen were seized by Swiss authorities after being found during a customs inspection at the Geneva Freeport. The objects had been deposited at the Freeport between 2009 and 2010. Six of the objects are believed to have been transported to Switzerland from Qatar and another from the United Arab Emirates.[10] This opened a debate on the role of the freeport in funding the terrorist activities of groups such as ISIS, who is suspected of depositing looted objects of ancient art in the facility via middlemen.[11]

In January 2016, officers from the art crimes squad of the Italian Carabinieri, working in collaboration with Swiss authorities, raided a storage unit that the British antiquities dealer Robin Symes rented at the Geneva Freeport. It was found to contain a huge quantity of stolen antiquities, nearly all of which is believed to have been looted by the Medici gang from Etruscan-era and Roman-era archaeological sites in Italy and other locations over a period of at least forty years. Packed inside 45 crates, investigators discovered some 17,000 Greek, Roman and Etruscan artefacts, including two stunning Etruscan terracotta sarcophagi, topped by painted, life-sized reclining figures, hundreds of whole or fragmentary pieces of rare Greek and Roman pottery, statuary and bas-reliefs, fragments of a fresco from Pompeii, and a marble head of Apollo which is thought to have been looted from the Baths of Claudius, near Rome. The artefacts are estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of Pounds, with the head of Apollo alone valued at £30 million (US$44 million). Symes is alleged to have hidden the objects at the Geneva Freeport warehouse soon after his partner's death, in order to conceal them from the executors of his estate and thus keep their huge value out of any settlement.[12][13]

In November 2015 the director of the Louvre, Jean-Luc Martinez, submitted a report on the protection of cultural heritage to UNESCO that denounced the role of the Geneva, Luxembourg and Singapore freeports in the illicit trafficking of stolen cultural goods. However, the European Commission's response to the report, in a meeting chaired by Luxembourg, "took great care not to mention the case of the freeports".[14]

In April 2016, Geneva prosecutors opened a criminal probe into the ownership of Modigliani’s “Seated Man with a Cane” in storage at the freeport. The canvas was seized by the authorities to determine its origins. The painting was allegedly looted by the Nazis from its original owner, Parisian art dealer Oscar Stettiner, who passed away before he could retrieve the painting,[15] and its whereabouts were unknown until it appeared at an auction in 2008 but didn't sell.[16] Its current owner, art collector David Nahmad, stated to have obtained the piece in 1996 and that no evidence linking the painting to Stettiner exists.[15]

As a result of this and other cases, art collectors began to pull their collections from the facility.[17] Swiss authorities also started taking an interest in the art trade for the first time, because of the risk of money laundering and tax evasion or avoidance.[18] Subsequently, customs agents in Geneva now require customers to submit a list of artworks stored in the freeport, and perform random checks.[19] The added security features have increased demand for its services.[2]

On 26 March 2019, the European Parliament adopted the final report of the Special Committee on Financial Crimes, Tax Evasion and Tax Avoidance (TAX3), which the committee had adopted on 27 February 2019. The report stressed that freeports provide "a safe and widely disregarded storage space, where trade can be conducted untaxed and ownership be concealed",[20] which has led the EP to call for freeports to be scrapped across the EU in order to fight tax-evasion and money-laundering.[21]

Effect on the art world[edit]

Described as the "greatest art collection that nobody gets to see",[22] prominent figures in the art world have been raising concerns about the fact that countless and priceless pieces of art are stored away from public view and treated as an investment, meaning these cultural objects might as well not exist.[23] For example, Eli Broad, a major contemporary art collector, stated that "treating art as a commodity and just hiding it in storage is something that to me is not really moral."[24]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Segal, David (21 July 2012). "Swiss Freeports Are Home for a Growing Treasury of Art". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Bonnett, Andrew (2014). Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and what They Tell Us About the World. Islington, London: Arum Press Ltd. pp:161-165 ISBN 978-1-78131-361-9.
  3. ^ a b Foulkes, Imogen (2 January 2013). "Geneva's art storage boom in uncertain times". BBC. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  4. ^ a b Knight, Sam (2016-02-01). "The Art-World Insider Who Went Too Far". ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  5. ^ "Change in governance at Luxembourg Freeport after Swiss investor’s arrest" The Art Newspaper [1]
  6. ^ a b Bradley, Simon (9 July 2014). "The discreet bunkers of the super-rich". Swissinfo. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  7. ^ Vincent Noce, "Beleaguered Yves Bouvier defends himself and freeport system" The Art Newspaper 10 October 2016 [2]
  8. ^ a b "Giacomo Medici «  Trafficking Culture". Retrieved 2018-10-03.
  9. ^ "Geneva Seizure - Archaeology Magazine Archive". Retrieved 2018-10-03.
  10. ^ Hannah McGivern Palmyra antiquities seized at Geneva Free Port, The Art Newspaper, 5 December 2016, [3]
  11. ^ Milmo, Cahal (2016-11-13). "Treasures 'hidden' in free ports at risk of being used to fund Isis'". Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  12. ^ Squires, Robin (1 February 2016). "Disgraced British art dealer's priceless treasure trove discovered hidden in Geneva". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 16 February 2016.
  13. ^ Muñoz-Alonso, Lorena (2 February 2016). "Trove of Looted Antiquities Belonging to Disgraced Dealer Robin Symes Found in Geneva Freeport". ArtNet. Retrieved 17 February 2016.
  14. ^ Vincent Noce, "France builds grand alliance to protect cultural heritage" The Art Newspaper 4 January 2016 [4]
  15. ^ a b Miller, Hugo (29 April 2016). "Art Collectors Quit Scandal-Hit Geneva". Bloomberg. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  16. ^ Lawler, David (2016-04-11). "Modigliani painting seized in Geneva in Panama Papers probe". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  17. ^ "Geneva Freeport Losing Art Collectors after a Scandal". Widewalls. Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  18. ^ Georgina Adam, "2015's biggest art market developments and what they mean" The Art Newspaper 23 December 2015 [5]
  19. ^ "Experts identify top six scandals amid boom in art crime" The Art Newspaper 1 July 2015 [6]
  20. ^ "Report on financial crimes, tax evasion and tax avoidance" (PDF). European Parliament. 26 March 2019.
  21. ^ "European Parliament puts 'urgent' phasing out of freeports top of agenda". Retrieved 2019-05-14.
  22. ^ Gompertz, Will (2016-12-01). "The greatest art collection no-one can see". Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  23. ^ "The Purpose of Geneva Freeport and Other Facilities Storing Great Works of Art". Widewalls. Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  24. ^ Bowley, Graham; Carvajal, Doreen (2016-05-28). "One of the World's Greatest Art Collections Hides Behind This Fence". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-03-22.