© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens

Riches behind bars

  • TEXT ANNE HAEMING
  • PHOTOS ANNE GABRIEL-JÜRGENS

“Le Freeport Singapore” is a luxury container storage space, overflowing with art. The deals being done there highlight the new customs and strategies of international art collectors

“If you have to come back here, just say you want to go to the lockup,” advised the taxi driver laughing, before speeding off into the morning heat. So here we are in an industrial area in the northeast of Singapore, surrounded by companies that supply airline food, repair aircraft or offer flight safety training. Occasionally a plane comes in to land at Changi airport, behind the fence and the mangrove forest. One of the buildings, however, has a totally different focus: art. It’s a grayish-brown cube with a camouflaged frontage made of embossed metal and a few palm trees growing in front of it. This is “Le Freeport” – a free-trade zone in the shape of an architectural structure. A luxury container storage facility with direct access to the airport. Art worth millions comes and goes through its iron gates without incurring taxes or customs duties. This is because when the idea of opening a subsidiary of the Geneva freeport was floated in 2005, Singapore’s government quickly changed the law.

Since opening in 2010, this storage facility has been an indicator of many trends: It reveals the changes in the art market and in the type of people who collect art. It also demonstrates the changed relationship of the rich to their assets, and illustrates how an entire country adopted a new image. All this is contained within the tranquil building, which is cooled to 20°C and reminiscent of a museum, only with fewer people in it.

It is also where Swiss expat Christian Pauli works. Those who pass through two turnstiles and clear two security checks, as well as a Singaporean customs office at the entrance, are greeted by the general manager of Fine Art Logistics in the atrium with a cordial handshake and a friendly Swiss “Grüezi.” A weathering steel sculpture by artist Ron Arad seems to fill the entire atrium. Its many mirrors reflect multiple images of Pauli. The large installation was once on display at MoMA in New York, and it is said to have taken months to reassemble here. Pauli is in his late forties with gelled-back hair, and has been living in Asia for decades. He has been based at Le Freeport since it opened and will tell you all about it: that it has roughly six thousand square meters of storage space and that more than half of the clients are from Europe and North America. Fine Art Logistics is one of the tenants at the freeport and at the same time a 100-percent subsidiary of Natural Le Coultre, the company that also runs the freeport locations in Geneva and Luxembourg. A further branch is currently under construction in Shanghai, and an annex is due to be completed in Singapore in 2018. According to the company, 80 percent of the goods at Le Freeport Singapore are works of art. The rest consists of gold bars – for example from Deutsche Bank – vintage cars, wine and jewelry.

You could easily spend a whole day in the building, hidden away from daylight, with Pauli showing you the exhibition spaces. Some of these feature generous sofas, some even have rugs on the floor. Why wouldn’t you want to create a cozy atmosphere at a container storage facility? Pauli plays the tour guide with a twinkle in his eye. He knocks on the safe doors, which are as thick as the length of a person’s forearm and block the way to the bunkers filled with gold bars. Or he may take you to a wine cellar filled with wooden crates, on which the wine growing regions and vintages starting with “19” are marked in ornate writing.

 

The jewelry safes at the freeport are difficult to crack

The jewelry safes at the freeport are difficult to crack

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens
Queenie Hu from Christie's Fine Art Storage Services in Singapore

Queenie Hu from Christie's Fine Art Storage Services in Singapore

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens
Asian vases in their shatterproof packaging

Asian vases in their shatterproof packaging

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens
Well disguised and even better protected: the works of art arrive at Le Freeport Singapore, remain for a while and are shipped out again at some point

Well disguised and even better protected: the works of art arrive at Le Freeport Singapore, remain for a while and are shipped out again at some point

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens
The “Pink Collar” sculpture by Ma Han is not in secure storage, but welcomes visitors to the Art Stage fair

The “Pink Collar” sculpture by Ma Han is not in secure storage, but welcomes visitors to the Art Stage fair

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens

 On the second floor, Pauli’s direct competition can show off similar storage spaces and showrooms. Sharon Tan, who is as bubbly as she is determined, works for the Christie’s subsidiary Fine Art Storage Services (CFASS). Rents for a 25-square meter space start at 2,000 euros a month. In the hallways, which are painted a neutral gray, there are a few wooden crates. A new shipment has arrived: still lifes of flowers and oil paintings, reminiscent of Marc Chagall. Some employees are in the middle of unpacking the paintings and are gently standing them up against the wall. “We’ll have a collector coming in to look at his works of art,” explains Tan. She keys in a code, and unlocks the door. Behind it is a bar area with expensive teas and the finest vodka. The tenants could host quite a party for guests and friends here, if only it wasn’t so chilly. The movers and shakers of the Tokyo Gallery UG also know about these rooms. They are in town for an art fair and use the freeport as a storage and showroom facility. In order to present additional works of art, they have rented a hotel suite, which is where gallery founder Eiichiro Sasaki tells me: “We primarily need the freeport for security reasons.” Since the 2011 earthquake and the subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan, protecting works of art is the highest priority, he adds. “We mustn’t forget that we have a great responsibility. We are only short-term companions of this art. It will outlast us all,” says Sasaki thoughtfully.

Singapore, on the other hand, lionizes all that is new, especially itself. The city-state recently celebrated 50 years of independence. The 5.5-million-strong metropolis defines itself as a permanent construction site. “Higher, taller, denser” seems to be its motto. Malls and traffic dominate the cityscape, but there are also many parks that are being developed. Singapore is synonymous with new money, which is quite deliberately on display at the Art Stage art fair. The latter was founded by Lorenzo Rudolf, who previously turned Art Basel upside down and also created Art Miami. The magnificent location of the fair is the Marina Bay Sands, a luxury hotel with its own forest and Gucci boutiques as big as other cities’ department stores. Once a year, people also buy art there.

“During Art Stage, we will once again host a dinner at the Freeport building,” says Rudolf. While we stroll through the exhibition hall, gallery owners are carefully putting up price lists and polishing the sculptures at their stalls. “The freeport is, however, only really used for the top segment of art, nobody would store a 2,000-dollar item there.” Because of the boom in the art market following the financial crisis, many items have increased in value and now need to be stored securely, he adds. While some lock away their art, others insist that the value of works of art increases in line with their public profile, and that the originals therefore have to be put on display. For Rudolph, the essential question is this: “Is it the collectors’ duty to make art publicly available? Or are they allowed to do as they please?” He himself tends to support the latter point of view.

Is it the collectors’ duty to make art publicly available?

Lorenzo Rudolf, founder of the Art Stage art fair

Curator Iola Lenzi is also looking around the art fair. A native of Canada with a fondness for striking jewelry, she has specialized in Southeast Asian art. “Art today has a different function from 100 years ago,” explains the art scholar. “It is an investment, rather then the expression of an intellectual worldview.” The fact that she is not a great fan of this change is unmistakable. “Nowadays it is more en vogue to talk about your storage facilities than about the art you own,” she mocks. Joanne Roberts is the Professor in Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Southampton and researches luxury in all its forms. She advances another theory: “Many of the super-rich are self-made millionaires, not heirs.” They consider money that is just sitting in the bank boring. “Collecting art, on the other hand, means acquiring cultural capital.”

One manifestation of today’s affluence is what sociologists call “stealth luxury” – luxury that does not want to be recognized as such. No showing off, but rather understated discretion. Storing your possessions away from view fits in with this trend, as does the attitude towards Singapore. The city always appears a little too artificial, like it is trying a bit too hard. It is a city that did not even have a National Gallery until the fall of 2015, and therefore no home for the formative works of its own art history. It is a city where you can see men at certain intersections going for that creative look, complete with horn-rimmed glasses, jeans with turn-ups and plateau sneakers. It is also a city in which the galleries exhibiting both young local and established international artists are a good 20 minutes by taxi from its downtown area. They are housed in the Gillman barracks, a former military facility.

One of the Fine Art Logistics lounges at Le Freeport Singapore

One of the Fine Art Logistics lounges at Le Freeport Singapore

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens
Paintings by the artist Takashi Onishi at Art Stage

Paintings by the artist Takashi Onishi at Art Stage

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens
Whether the fierce character is laughing or howling in desperation depends on the viewer’s perspective

Whether the fierce character is laughing or howling in desperation depends on the viewer’s perspective

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens
Locking up carefully. Christian Pauli, the general manager of freeport tenant Fine Art Logistics, knows his way around the labyrinthine hallways

Locking up carefully. Christian Pauli, the general manager of freeport tenant Fine Art Logistics, knows his way around the labyrinthine hallways

© Anne Gabriel-Jürgens

 “We seem shifty to you because we store high-value items?” Tony Reynard, the French-Swiss chairman of Le Freeport Singapore ask with apparent irritation. He is a wiry fellow, but is presently recovering from a severe bout of jetlag in his office. His exhaustion is clearly visible in his face. “I don’t know exactly what is being stored here, I’m just the landlord,” he says. “But we do check for stolen goods, drugs and weapons.” He and Pauli both stress that Le Freeport is neither a fortress nor Fort Knox. They welcome journalists and even TV crews, although this may be part of a PR charm offensive. 2015 was a difficult year for Le Freeport. Money-laundering allegations surfaced against Yves Bouvier, the owner of its parent company Natural Le Coultre. A Russian client had taken him to court alleging attempted fraud. Bouvier was arrested and released on bail that was set at 27 million U.S. dollars, but his assets were frozen by a court order. Not ideal for business – on that, Tan, Pauli and Reynard are agreed. Many clients were irritated by this story. When it comes to security, especially in a free-trade zone, even the tiniest of shockwaves can have the impact of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. However, the trio insists: “None of our collectors pulled out.”

We are only short term companions of this art. It will outlast us all

Eiichiro Sasaki, Manager of the UG Gallery

Reynard has to get going now, as there is an art prize being awarded at the U.S. embassy that evening. The fact that his clients do not keep their money in secret Swiss bank accounts, but as luxury goods abroad comes as no surprise to him: “Their faith in the financial system has changed, but not their relationship to wealth.” On the way out he has a quick conversation with Christian Pauli, standing in front of Ron Arad’s huge, intertwined sculpture. The piece seems fitting on the strength of its name alone: “Cages without Borders.” It is an oversized, horizontal figure eight. “Our Chinese clients love it,” says Pauli, as the mirrors above him glisten. “To them it represents infinite wealth.”


 

 

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