Society for Economic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
At first glance, the global art trade—currently valued around $60 billion—is a miniscule piece of global economic production. But due to the unregulated nature of the art market, it serves a key function within the larger network of the accumulation and distribution of capital worldwide. This deregulated market intersects with the offshore domain in freeports, an archipelago of tax-free storage facilities that stretch from Singapore to Geneva to Delaware. The burgeoning of freeports globally suggests that speculation has become a major aspect of investment in art and the result is that more art works are being taken out of circulation and deposited in vaults beyond the view of regulatory authorities.
The challenge of course is how to study freeports since their contents are kept secret. This is where previous sociological and anthropological methods for studying the informal economy can be productively employed to estimate the scale of art storage and its impact on the market. Despite its size, the art trade can serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine of economic exchange and, by examining offshore art storage and art trade that occurs in freeports, it will be possible to locate some of the hidden mechanisms that allow the global art market to flourish on the margins of the economy as well as to perceive a new trend in investment that seeks to locate assets offshore. This pattern will have the effect of transforming the broader economy in unprecedented ways.