September 19, 2016

Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA addressing concerns about the trade in stolen antiquities

Google Earth View of Ports Franc
As Geneva officials at the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA attempt to address previously raised concerns about the risks surrounding the trade in stolen antiquities, both in terms of money-laundering and as a potential support for arms traffickers or terrorist groups, tighter controls have been implemented today on shipments which affect everyone in the art shipping industry that handle the shipment of antiquities to this free port. 

Originally set to be implemented this past summer, the new rule requires that anyone wanting to store ancient artefacts at the sprawling facility will have to undergo checks by an independent firm of specialists hired by the über-warehouse.  This group is tasked with investigating the validity of requests and the precise origins of any antiquities before the object is approved for transport to the complex for subsequent storage.  

The new check applies to all objects classified under HS Code 9705.   HS classifications are based on standardised international codes used in shipment data as a means of classifying specific types of goods.  Goods listed under this code are deemed to be "works of art, collectors' pieces and antiques, collections and collectors' pieces of zoological, botanical, mineralogical, anatomical, historical, archaeological, palaeontological, ethnographic or numismatic interest."

According to the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website, the first step of this procedure will be a documentation check made by KPMG, one of the Big Four global consultancy firms, (along with Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers) more famous for their financial audit, tax and advisory services. What this powerhouse finance firm's experience is as auditors of artwork provenance is not clear.  There is no mention of art services on the KPMG website. 

But moving along to what the shippers need to submit. 

To complete the new due diligence check, potential customers who wish to use the facility will be required to ship, a minimum of ten days prior to the intended shipment date, "all documents in your possession (invoices, lists, certificates, export licenses, passports, etc.) as well as a good quality photograph" for inspection.  The Ports Francs website doesn't specify what the photo should be of:  the object to be stored or a passport photo of the shipper.  

The Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève SA website further states that "an Artloss register certificate is a big asset." 

While the Geneva freeport may see a certificate from an art loss database such as London-based Art Loss Register or Art Claim (another art loss database maintained by Art Recovery International) as the owner having done their individual due diligence these types of certificates are only helpful in cases where known objects are stolen from known collections.  Such paper assurances offer no proof that the proposed antiquity is of licit origin and are ineffective in diminishing the illicit trade in archaeological remains.   

Undocumented, looted antiquities without collection histories will never appear in art loss databases.  This has been underscored over and over again. Undocumented, looted antiquities appear most often at border crossings and all to frequently launder their way up and into the art market, popping up with embarrassing regularity in museum and private collections despite sometimes having accumulated probable paperwork that on first glance tacitly legitimises them along the way.

When suspicious, rather than relying on certificates, KPMG would be better served consulting with the WCO,  academics researching in the field of illicit antiquities and the International Council of Museums (ICOM).   ICOM's “Red Lists” offer detailed descriptions of objects the auditors should be suspicious of coming from countries that may currently be or have been at risk of looting. Trusting that an object is "clean" merely because it has a stack of papers tied to it will not deter trafficking.


In 2013 Connaissances des Arts, estimated that the Ports Francs free port held around 1.2 million artworks. Its huge warehouses offers 150,000 square meters (1.6 million square feet) of storage space.  In more visual terms, that's the equivalent of 22 soccer pitches.  

While the amendment to the Swiss Customs Act, approved by the Swiss parliament on Jan. 1, 2016, and this new ruling give new power to administrators, customs authorities and contractors to monitor and control the entry and exit of goods from its tax-advantaged art-and-collectible storage facility, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Four major free ports in Switzerland dominate the market in storing high value goods. Five free ports worldwide have bet their marketshare specialising in the storage of priceless art works. The oldest is Ports Francs in the La Praille neighborhood in Geneva, Switzerland which was founded in 1850.  The others include the ultra chic Singapore Freeport which opened in 2010, the Monaco Freeport by S.E.G.E.M., in Fontvieille, just minutes away from the lucrative casinos of Monte-Carlo.

Le Freeport in Luxembourg opened its doors just two years ago, benefiting in part from the overflow of taxable goods once destined for Ports Francs in Geneva.  In the Far East the Beijing Freeport of Culture located adjacent to Beijing Capital Airport, and the much anticipated Shanghai Le Freeport West Bund, which is lated to open in 2017, both will allow the art market to store a substantial amount of art in mainland China.

In 2013, the European Fine Art Fair annual report, known in the field as the TEFAF Art Market Report cited an estimate which estimated that approximately $100 billion of art is stored in tax friendly free port facilities.  To be effective in deterring trafficking through these facilities, any inspections undertaken in free ports should be harmonised in all facilities across the globe. 

By: Lynda Albertson

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