The Geneva Freeport, which may be the world’s most valuable storage facility, consists of seven beige warehouses and a large grain silo in La Praille, an industrial zone a short tram ride from the city’s lakeside panorama of banks and expensive hotels. One recent morning, rain was falling on the chain-link fence that runs through the property, and snow was visible on the mountains to the south. Iris scanners, magnetic locks, and a security system known as Cerberus guard the freeport’s storerooms, whose contents are said to be insured for a hundred billion dollars, but the facility retains a blue-collar feel. There were signs to the showers. Men stood around in aprons and smoked. Everything about the place tells you to look the other way.
The freeport began, in 1888, as a group of sheds near the waterfront. It was one of countless similar spaces around the world, where customs authorities allow duties and taxes to be suspended until goods reach their final destination. In time, however, the Geneva Freeport became legendary. It grew very large, and its official status—the freeport is eighty-six per cent owned by the local government—and kinship with the opaque traditions of Swiss banking made it a storage facility for the international élite. Under the freeport’s rules, objects could remain in untaxed limbo, in theory, forever. Treasures came and they did not leave. A generation ago, these goods were cars, wine, and gold. More recently, they have been works of art.Yves Bouvier was among the first to see the potential of the freeport as an adjunct to the art market. A blond, compact man of fifty-two, Bouvier is the owner of Natural Le Coultre, a moving and storage company and the largest tenant in the complex. For more than a hundred years, the firm shipped everything from citrus fruit to industrial machinery; during the First World War, Natural Le Coultre supplied prisoners of war with Red Cross food parcels. Since 1997, however, when Bouvier took over the firm from his father, it has handled only paintings and sculpture. Bouvier refurbished the company’s premises at the freeport, which include two showrooms, and encouraged a framer to open a workshop in the building. Since 2013, Natural Le Coultre has rented more than twenty thousand square metres in storage space and has had well over a million objects in its care.Every item passes through a single packing room, where it is unwrapped, photographed, and studied for damage. On the morning I visited, a Bob Dylan painting had arrived, along with a Picasso bronze from Greece. There were hammers hanging in order of size, and a stack of crates containing works by Léon Pourtau, a minor Impressionist. Ramon Casais, who has worked in the freeport for the past thirty years, agreed to show me a corridor of locked storeroom doors only after he had gone ahead to make sure there was absolutely nothing to see.Specialist logistics companies, like Natural Le Coultre, are the quiet butlers of the art world. They operate deep inside it but are not quite of it. When an artist has made a sculpture out of butter, or scalpels, or half a passenger jet, it is up to a shipper to get it from Hong Kong to Miami in the same condition as when it left, and to make no fuss. To do their work, shippers must know many things. They are given records of private sales and the names of collectors, in order to navigate customs. In the course of a typical day, stopping by the homes of dealers and the back rooms of galleries, they learn who answers the door and the phone number of the assistant, and see the other pictures on the walls. The shippers’ professional indifference means that they are often in the room at moments of extreme commercial sensitivity. “Imagine that I am in Basel and I need to show a client a painting,” Thomas Seydoux, a dealer and a former chairman of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s, told me. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time, you are going to show it with a transit agent.”This intimacy means that, once you find your shipper, you tend to stick with him. Relationships last for decades, built on trust and a sense, usually unspoken, of absolute limits. In sixteenth-century Venice, diplomats were instructed to employ illiterate valets, who would be unable to read any secret documents they were asked to carry. A transit agent “should by default be a blind man,” Seydoux told me. “That is the very nature of his job.” Everything works fine, as long as people stay within their allotted roles. Seydoux said, “You can’t win somebody’s trust by saying you are blind and then open your eyes.”Yves Bouvier started handling art in his late teens. He worked at Natural Le Coultre during his vacations, earning money in order to ski. When I asked him recently to describe himself as a child, he replied, “Turbulent.” He grew up in Avully, a small village on the border with France. He had a sister, who was born disabled and later died. As a boy, Bouvier was withdrawn. He spent most of his time outdoors, where he was brave—reckless, almost—when it came to physical activities. “Any kind of sport that was extreme, he liked,” Tony Reynard, a friend of Bouvier’s since he was twelve, told me. He skied like a maniac and raced go-karts on the roads at night. He dreamed of opening a bar and ski shop in the mountains.Bouvier’s father, Jean-Jacques, started as an apprentice at Natural Le Coultre in 1953. In 1982, he was able to buy the company. Yves, having dropped out of college, joined him, and brought his appetite for risk to the unlikely domain of freight. Bouvier combines a Calvinist reserve with a delight in doing the unthinkable. “If you tell me it is not possible, I will say, O.K., I will do it,” he told me once. He took on spectacular jobs—the transport of an eighty-five-ton industrial furnace, a U.B.S. office move in Geneva—but was also drawn to what was fragile, beautiful, and expensive. Bouvier speaks an imperfect, gestural English, but he explained that becoming a shipper allowed him to immerse himself in “the feeling and the difficulty of art.” He had no formal training, just what passed through his hands. “It started with the touch,” he said. “You have all the panoply: small, huge, it’s with value, with no value. You have everything, so you learn.”Shipping also introduced Bouvier to the complicated lives of the rich—their taxes and their divorces—and the other ancillary trades that help the art world go around: restorers, framers, hired experts, operators of tiny galleries in Paris clinging on from sale to sale. He realized they all had needs of their own. When he took over the running of Natural Le Coultre from his father, at the age of thirty-four, Bouvier sold off the company’s general moving business and specialized in art. Unlike other shippers, however, he never considered stopping at logistics....MUCH MORE
Sunday, December 3, 2017
"The Bouvier Affair: How an art-world insider made a fortune by being discreet"
From the New Yorker, Feb. 15, 2016: