Society for Economic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper addresses how the global art market is becoming an outlet of choice for those wishing to hide assets. Recent efforts by the OECD and U.S. Treasury have made it difficult for people to avoid taxation via offshore financial centers. These efforts, however, have not extended their enforcement measures to the trade in “physical assets” like fine art.
Citing historical and ethnographic data collected in Luxembourg – a jurisdiction angling to become a worldwide leader in “art finance” – I discuss three characteristics of this emerging system of opaque economic activity. The first of these is a “freeport,” a luxurious and securitized warehouse where investors can store, buy, and sell art tax free and in secrecy. The second element is the presence of “art finance” professionals, who 1) issue loans to borrowers using fine art as collateral and 2) develop “art funds” linked to the market value of the artworks housed in these investment vehicles. The final aspect points to the secrecy techniques typically on offer in offshore centers, such as the domiciliation of shell companies and foundations.
This combination of elements in jurisdictions such as Luxembourg enables people to move around the vast amounts of wealth stored in art, with few questions asked. I end my paper asking whether artworks linked to freeports and opaque financial products have become the latest version of the Swiss bank account or the suitcase full of cash – that is, a means to hide money from tax authorities, creditors, and family members.