Geneva keeps priceless art under wraps | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.01.2013
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Geneva keeps priceless art under wraps

Which building is home to the world's best collection of art? The Louvre in Paris? London's Tate Modern? The MOMA in New York? It might just be an unattractive warehouse in Geneva.

There are many charming areas of Geneva, but the warehouse complex known as Freeport isn't one of them. This is where a large storage facility is sandwiched between a railway and a busy road - a building is shrouded in secrecy. Thousands of works of art are inside, including an estimated 300 works by Picasso alone. Their combined value reaches perhaps into the billions of dollars. Only a lucky few are allowed inside.

"I was led to a storage place where paintings were stored and I had to go through Picasso works," said Simon Studer, who owns an art business in Freeport. "I was brought down in the morning and they locked me into the safe and I had to ring for them to take me out of the vaults. It was quite a strange environment because I was alone and I was surrounded by so many valuable artworks." At the start of Studer's career it was his job to take stock of the thousands of works of art stored in this tax-free haven.

A low-lying cityscape ends at the blue edge of a large lake whose horizon is interrupted by a mid-lake fountain. (Photo: Gaetan Bally / dpa)

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Today, Freeport is booming - so much so that a brand new 10,000-square-meter extension is now under construction.

But why is more and more art coming to Geneva? And who is it all for?

A fine investment

"We see art, actually, as a very good investment, as a great way to diversify your portfolio, a good edge against inflation," said Jean-Rene Saillard, who works in Geneva for The Fine Art Fund Group, a British investment partnership.

"There are many reasons to consider art now as an investment. As a fund we are buying between the 16th and the 21st century. That's a way to diversify risk. The main part of our collection is being stored at the Freeport in Geneva actually, a very safe and secure facility."

The warehouse is 115 years old, built just before the turn of the 20th century. It was meant to store merchandise just after importation or just prior to exportation - without paying local taxes. Beyond just paintings, soaps, diamonds and carpets were among the various items stored there.

Even Geneva residents like Anne Shelton store their works of art there. While her house is full of paintings by artists such as Turner prize winner Douglas Gordon, 400 of her 500 paintings are stored in the 'Ports Francs et Entrepots de Geneve' warehouse. "They are unhappily sleeping elsewhere, because I buy too regularly," the local laughed.

If only…

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Like many, Jean-Rene Saillard daydreams about a trip through the secure warehouse. "It would be probably the best museum in the world if it was a museum," he told DW. "It's an amazing amount of works of art being stored there."

As art is increasingly seen as a commodity, though - and a safe one at that - new competition is springing up to better store it. Luxembourg and Singapore now boast freeports, where art can remain stored without fear of tax or customs duties. Geneva, however, remains the oldest, biggest, and still has the most art.

"Geneva is a city where there is a certain affluence, there's no doubt about it - that has to play an important part in it for sure," Anne Shelton said. "But we also have some fabulous artists, and that's got nothing to do with money."

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