The spectacular growth of the international art market is generating higher demand for free port storage, where the suspension of duties and taxes on art of great value can ease the flow of transactions. Switzerland remains leader in a field that is experiencing deep changes.


Article originally published in an edited version on 18 July 2012 in Booming art market bolstered by Swiss free ports

Also published in several languages:

Les ports francs, un carrefour du marché de l’artSchweizer Zollfreilager stärken den KunstmarktI porti franchi svizzeri, crocevia del mercato dell’arteExplosión de mercado del arte en depósitos suizosスイスの保税倉庫利用で高まるアート市場の熱瑞士自由港促成艺术品市场的繁荣

The globalisation of the art market, spurred by China’s recent inclusion, is dramatically transforming the international landscape of art. Free ports, also referred to as bonded warehouses, serve as its logistics backbone as they allow works of art to be stored or transported in the best conditions while waiting to change hands.

Switzerland has always been a major player in the field, with more than a dozen free ports, the larger ones being in Chiasso, Zurich, Basel and Geneva. Geneva is said to concentrate the greatest amount of art of any storage in the world, much of it of museum quality and therefore priceless.

The deep changes occurring in the art world are however transforming the original purpose of free ports, which was to defer formalities until such a time as the art reached its final destination. The fiscal limbo of free ports is a great springboard for an investment market that dispenses with the physical presence of goods or for collections that have simply run out of space.

On the investment side, research provided by the Mei Moses All Art Index indicates that art has consistently outperformed equities between 2000 and 2011, with only a slight dip during the 2008 economic downturn. High net worth individuals looking to diversify their portfolios and investment funds are therefore purchasing art like never before, but not necessarily to live with it.

As art becomes an asset class, art deals can be concluded independently of the physical location of the object. It follows that secure storage, preferably outside the fiscal legislation of any given country, is in great demand as art works weave their way in and out of financial transactions while remaining in warehouses.

“Most of the art owned by our fund is in Geneva,” Jean-Rene Saillard, the Geneva-based Group sales director for the UK Fine Art Fund Group, a highly successful art investment partnership created ten years ago, told There are now 40 similar funds, 20 of them Chinese and most of them created in the last few years.

“But that doesn’t mean that the art remains hidden. The idea that art in free ports never gets shown is a myth,” Saillard continued. “Owners have every reason to lend generously. When works they possess are exposed by prestigious institutions, they naturally increase in value.” (Kunsthaus Zurich recently showed part of the legendary Nahmad collection which is stored in Geneva’s free port.)

“Miró, Monet, Matisse – The Nahmad Collection” at Kunsthaus Zurich, 21 October 2011 – 15 January 2012, photos Michèle Laird

He went on to describe how our rapport to art has been modified by the vertiginous rise in its value. “In the seventies a good acquisition could be made for the cost of a week’s holiday, now it’s the price of a house.”

Anders Petterson, founder of London-based analysts ArtTactic stated that “Art markets are increasingly linked to financial markets.” The art industry is currently estimated to be worth €46.1 billion (SFr55.4 billion).

“People across the world are buying art,” Petterson emphasised. He attributes the explosive growth of the art market not only to investment funds, but also, particularly in the post-war and contemporary art segments, to the multiplication of art fairs, auction sales and new art collectors.

There is so much art, he said, that we are running out of space “I know a number of collectors whose passion outran their walls long ago, but who keep buying. Up to 80 per cent of their collection ends up in bonded warehouses.” Even museums only show a very small portion of their possessions at a time.

As a result, the need for strategically placed professional services to ensure the safeguard and preservation of fine art is increasingly important. Free ports are not only temperature and humidity controlled, they also come with an armada of essential services: security, restoration, framing, authentication, evaluation and specialized transportation, to name only a few.

“Preserving art in optimal conditions is the main reason for using warehouses,” insisted framer Denis Schott who opened an antenna to his shop in Geneva’s free port five years ago.

Although free ports are guarded like Fort Knox, “Geneva is less mysterious than many make it out to be,” he said. Some of the vaults even resemble luxurious galleries, although with a constant temperature of 17 degrees “we freeze in there,” he revealed.

Art preservation, Schott contended, is demanding. For example, oil paintings should not be left in the dark, otherwise the colours fade. A large part of the success of free ports, he believes, is the quality of the services on site, especially those provided by the forwarding agents.

Yves Bouvier presides one of them, Natural Le Coultre, the world’s largest art storage and logistics operator. “The art market has increased fourfold over recent years,” he observed. The fact that there are more artists than ever before and that contemporary art tends to occupy greater volumes has also increased the need for state-of-the art facilities. New designs take this into consideration.

As a result, Geneva is expanding, with a new building due to open in 2013, Singapore inaugurated a large facility in 2010 to cater to the rising Asian art market and a free port is due to become operational in Luxemburg in 2014. Luxemburg, according to Bouvier, is a leading global location for investment funds, second only to the US.

Singapore Freeport, design Atelier d’Architecture 3BM3

Because security conditions are paramount, Bouvier dismissed the idea that shady deals remain rampant in free ports (see accompanying article). “Everything is scanned on entry,” he assured. In 2005, Switzerland introduced legislation to verify provenance and ownership of all cultural goods and in 2009 it made complete inventories obligatory.

Art insurers are naturally relieved that coverage is being spread over different venues. “We have some restrictions for underwriting new business in Geneva, as we monitor our total exposure very closely,” explained David Saillen, Director of the Swiss branch of Axa-Art, one of the largest art insurance companies in the world.

Due to competitive undercutting by insurers still willing to take on new clients there, “the paradox is that premiums in Geneva have never been so low.” He indicated reassuringly that reputable companies now pool their resources when values become too great.

Switzerland, with its numerous art collections, museums, galleries and art fairs has always cultivated its high art profile. The novelty is that its free ports have become key players in the booming international art market.

“Art is a currency that flows between countries. Andres Petterson said, intent on pointing out that hypothetical returns are not always the main reason for buying. “Art procures prestige, as well as enjoyment. Emotion plays an essential role.”

“Free ports are protecting our artistic heritage on the move,” he concluded.


Storing goods under free port status allows postponement of VAT and customs duty payments until such time as the goods reach their final destination.

Geneva Free Ports and Warehouses Ltd are located at Geneva international airport and La Praille. Premises cover 140,000 square meters, the equivalent of 22 football pitches. An additional 10,000 square meters will be inaugurated in 2013. 27 percent of the surface is occupied by works of art, the rest is for jewellery, precious stones, precious metals, watches and even wines and cars.

In 2011, with a turnover of SFr22 million ($ 23.1 million), the company generated SFr10 million for Geneva canton that holds an 86 percent stake in the operations.

Goods may be stored in transit for an unlimited period of time and at minimal expense.

The provenance, ownership, valuation and inventory of goods stored are now required by Swiss law.


The area around the La Praille free port is considered to be the up and coming art area of Geneva.

Singapore FreePort was inaugurated in May 2010. The four-story building offers 25,000 square meter space, or which 40 per cent is occupied by Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services (CFASS).

A Luxembourg Freeport, with 20,000 square meters, is expected to be operational in 2014. It has been preceded by Deloitte’s Art & Finance services that propose art expertise and seminars, one even entitled “Business opportunities of free ports”.

Swiss architects Carmelo Stendardo and Bénedicte Montat from Atelier d’Architecture 3BM3 designed the Geneva expansion, Singapore and Luxemburg free ports.

The aptly named Fortress in the US has provided premises in New York (free port), Boston and Miami for the last thirty years and is still expanding. Climates extremes are of particular concern in the US.


Axa-Art has initiated the Global Risk Assessment Platform (GRASP) for evaluating warehouse and museum facilities. 100 warehouses and 200 museums have been assessed so far.

ArtTactic is a leading art market research and advisory firm. Deloitte Luxembourg and ArtTactic publish the annual Art & Finance Report – a barometer for the growing art and finance industry.

Pauline-Gaia Laburte, analyst at Deloitte Art & Finance services told “Making tax deductible donations to museums is no longer attractive at a time when many (museums) are selling the works they received just to survive.” Other means of fiscal optimization must be found. As a result foundations and museums to house the private collections of industrial billionaires or oligarchs are springing up all over the world.

The Fine Art Fund offers investment expertise in art from the 15th to the 20th century.

Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services   (CFASS) was created to provide “a full range of services surrounding the management and preservation of clients’ art, antiques, and collectibles.” It has secured 40 per cent of Singapore FreePort.

Andreas Rumbler, Chairman of Christie’s Switzerland told Swissinfo: “The glamour is the easy bit. The crucial test is how we handle the shipping, paperwork and storage. I often compare the art market to the five star luxury industry: it’s what happens behind the scenes that counts.”


Historically, the British Railroad Pension Fund was the first institutional investor in art. It acquired 2,400 works of art between 1974-1980 for an investment of £40 million (SFr60 million). The results of the investment continue to be source of debate.

According to Clare McAndrew’s reputable annual report on the art market, sales rose 7 per cent to €46.1 billion (SFr 55.4 bin) in 2011 and the volume of transactions increased by 5 per cent. The Chinese art and auction sector rose dramatically by 177 per cent in 2010 and a further 64 per cent in 2011.

According to Artprice, 2011 was the best ever year for sales of art at auctions. Christie’s had a bumper year, with sales up 9% over the previous year to a record USD$5.7 billion. Sotheby’s annual sales reached USD$5.8 billion.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: