In the NY Times, Scott Reyburn reports that the Panama Papers provide a rare window into one of the shadiest corners of the art market, where the mega-rich, hiding behind offshore shell companies, treat precious works of art as easily exchangeable assets. Reyburn examines three case studies from the papers, one in which a Russian billionaire used an offshore company to move his art beyond the reach of his soon-to-be ex-wife, and another in which a British financier used legal slight of hand to make it seem like his collection, which was being auctioned off at Christies, belonged to a pair of respected art connoisseurs instead of himself:
The papers reveal that a collection of modernist masterpieces assembled by Victor and Sally Ganz, a Manhattan couple, and auctioned for $206.5 million at a landmark sale at Christie’s in New York in 1997, was not actually sold by their family, but by a British financier who had secretly bought it months earlier.
According to Mossack Fonseca documents, the British billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis — or rather, one of his shell companies — was the seller at the auction, apparently in some kind of partnership with Christie’s. It was all a massive “flip,” a quick resale that was early, if undisclosed, evidence of just how much art was being treated like a commodity.
The event set a high for any single-owner collection at auction, ushering in a new era of blockbuster prices for trophy art. The question is whether people would have paid as much if they had known that the art was not fresh from the estate of two connoisseurs who had spent half a century scouring galleries for gems by artists like Picasso, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella.
“To ‘flip’ an entire collection of that quality is unprecedented,” said the art adviser Wendy Goldsmith, who was Christie’s director of 19th-century European art in London at the time and was unaware of the auction house’s arrangement with Mr. Lewis. “It was an icon of estate sales, a milestone in pricing. Bidders were buying the Ganz provenance.”
Two of the three case studies examined by Reyburn involve art stored at the tax-free Geneva Freeport, which Hito Steyerl has probed for our sister publication e-flux journal.
Image: Picasso’s 1955 “Women of Algiers (Version ‘O’),” from the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz, sold for $31.9 million in 1997, and sold at Christie’s last year for $179.4 million. Via NY Times.