Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Everything but the Villa Straylight

In one of those false confluences of memories, the first thing I thought of when I heard about the two new free ports (one outside Paris in the development stages, the other opening in December in Singapore) that the contemporary art world is all anxious to start exploiting, is the fictional über-luxury orbiting resort in William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. Shaped like a cigar (you do the math), the resort is named "Freeside," and it has symbolized the ultimate in futuristic decadence to me since first reading Gibson's masterpiece.

But back to those free ports. The New York Times explains:
In a western suburb of Paris, on the Île Seguin, developers are planning a vast art center, combining art warehouse, showroom and tax-free trade zone. Half a world away, in Singapore, an even grander project aims to revolutionize art storage and trading.

With the global art market suffering in the economic downturn, the projects, privately financed and state supported, seek to bolster art markets by combining traditional notions of storage, exhibition and tax-free trading.
Evading taxes and the art market go together like acid and water (just "do what you oughta"), and free ports are nothing new in international trading, but the idea of adding a showroom to the mix has captured the imagination of the auction houses, especially now that conspicuous consumption has become déclassé:
Referring to the FreePort, [Alain Vandenborre, president and co-founder of (Singapore's) FreePort] said: “Here, goods can stay in transit indefinitely without entering the country. Unlike Switzerland, no duty is ever levied here, no estimated V.A.T. deposited, and no customs inventory drawn up.” What’s more, he said, “the nature of the goods stored in the FreePort, their value, the identity of their owner, and any transaction within its walls remain confidential.”

That secrecy may be particularly attractive to auction houses, which have seen their private sales activity increase even as their public auction results have tumbled. On May 18, Christie’s International said it would occupy 40 percent of the facility’s gross space with an option for more.

“We will explore all the ways we can use a free-trade-zone status to serve our clients, with private sales as an important feature,” Andy Foster, chief operating officer of Christie’s International and president of Christie’s Asia, said in an e-mail response to a question about its plans at the FreePort.

For FreePort investors, they are banking on Asia’s long-term potential. “The Chinese have enormous collections that are deteriorating in ill-suited warehouses,” said Mr. Bouvier, the FreePort chairman. “Some Malaysian collectors rent entire apartments just to store their artworks.”

“This region is a massive consumer factory,” he added. “It is where the recovery from the global recession will begin.”
Which brings me back to Neuromancer's space-station resort, Freeside, the tip of which held the fortress named Villa Straylight, the estate of the filthy rich (and just plain filthy) family Tessier-Ashpool. 3Jane, the matriarch of the family, runs the place and is described in the Wikipedia description as "extremely disconnected from the world outside."

I couldn't help but think the Paris and Singapore free ports are designed in part to service 3Jane types. In particular, there is something potentially "unsavory" about the Singapore version because, as the Times explains, "Singapore opted out of the Unesco Convention in 1985 and chose not to sign a 1995 international agreement on the repatriation of stolen or illegally exported cultural goods." In other words, stolen artwork could be taken there and, one assumes, enjoyed there while its thieves exhausted the efforts of its true owners to reclaim it. Think about Nazi-looted art being held there until the last true heir who cares passes away and you begin to understand the potential offense here.

Having said that, the notion of an international contemporary art fair in one of these locations seems very attractive to me. (It's not that I'm interested in denying the citizens of another country their rightful share of the taxes on sold goods, but the paperwork alone for bringing artwork in and out of customs in other countries, even if you sell nothing, is enough to drive anyone mad.) You could conduct business in the Île Seguin and then party in Paris. FIAC, are you listening?

Labels: art market, brave new world


Blogger C. L. DeMedeiros said...

I don't know if I'm still ignorant about that or if I learn wrong, but when I had shows is South America I trade my art work back and fourth ( some of my pieces were sold, so I need to bring than back to their owners ) But I never paid any extra for transporting art. Some times I had a copy of some Geneva document the Casa de la Cultura “Raúl Otero Reiche”. I get to a point of boiling when they try to take my art work away from me because I don't have taxes papers on the sale of any of it. My excuse was the same: I never made enough to pay taxes and art was excluded.
Please Edward tell me if I was risking my ass doing this whole thing alone of if I was just lucky.


6/10/2009 09:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Having said that, the notion of an international contemporary art fair in one of these locations seems very attractive to me.

Singapore's Freeport also grants taxfree access to the country's museums for exhibition of these goods ... (beyond their private viewing rooms)

Put the art fair in a "temporary" museum facility et voila ..

6/10/2009 09:33:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

Shaped like a cigar (you do the math)...

sometimes a cigar is just a... oh forget it! I love that novel!

(ps: my word verification is "ungst")

6/10/2009 07:44:00 PM  

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