It may contain 300 Picassos but few have ever explored the riches in the Geneva free port art storage site, the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes reports.
The art boom has led to good times for institutions known as “free ports”: bonded warehouses in which all sorts of commodities, from grain, to gold, to fine art, can be stored, and remain, while they are in storage, exempt from tax and customs duties.
The Geneva free port is, from the exterior, a rather unimpressive warehouse in an industrial area of the city.
Inside, it is said to house the largest collection of fine art anywhere in the world, although it is hard to find out exactly what is in there, as both the port’s management and local customs officials refuse to divulge any information.
“I was led to a storage place where paintings were stored,” he explained, “and I had to go through Picasso works, so I was brought down in the morning and they locked me into the safe.
“At lunchtime 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.”
It is estimated there are at least 300 works by Picasso alone stored at the free port, many belonging to the reclusive Nahmad family, who have been buying and trading art as an investment for half a century.
One Nahmad family member has been quoted as saying that “Monet and Picasso are like Microsoft or Coca Cola”, meaning that they are likely to be safe investments for a long time to come.
“We see art actually as a very good investment,” he said. “It’s a great way to diversify your portfolio, a good hedge against inflation. There are many reasons to consider art now as an investment.”
Still, the current boom in art means free ports are booming too. Geneva is building a 10,000 sq m (108,000 sq ft) extension, due to open next year, and new free ports are springing up in Luxembourg, and in Singapore.
But, said Jean-Rene Saillard, Geneva remains the oldest, the biggest, and the one with the most art.
“It would be probably the best museum in the world if it was a museum,” he added.