HT: Simoleon SenseTo avoid paying taxes, the rich are emptying their bank accounts in Switzerland and investing in art. This has spawned a new business of storing such works tax- and duty-free in warehouses across the world.One of the world's most valuable art treasures is being stored in an extremely ugly place, a six-story concrete building known as the Geneva free port. Instead of windows, much of the façade of this giant safe for the world's wealthy is covered with gray panels.Anyone hoping to get into the walk-in lock boxes of this very special Swiss tax haven must first surmount a number of hurdles. At the first door, an employee has to type the right combination of numbers into a small screen. The next hurdle is a large steel barrier that has to be rotated counter-clockwise until it snaps into place, followed by a heavy steel door that resembles a submarine bulkhead. Behind it is a drab corridor with doors on both sides. Only the renters have keys to these doors.The employee of Geneva Free Ports & Warehouses Ltd. remains discreetly in the background while the owners of the locked-up treasures count their gold bars or examine their collection of paintings being stored in the warehouse.
The Nahmad dynasty of art dealers reportedly has 300 Picassos in storage in Geneva. Countless Degas, Monets and Rothkos are also stored on the inhospitable premises. The estimated value of the works is in the billions. Hardly any museum can boast such a valuable collection.
Those who use the warehouse are genuinely wealthy. According to the Capgemini World Wealth Report, there were 12 million millionaires in the world last year, with combined assets of $46.2 trillion (€35 trillion), or 10 percent more than in the previous year.
But even if the world's rich are getting richer, many of them are also worried. The financial crisis isn't over yet, and tax havens worldwide are under pressure to disclose the identities of people whose assets are parked in their banks.
Recently, even Swiss bankers have been sending letters to their clients, asking them to cooperate with tax authorities and consider turning themselves in. This only heightens fears of the tax authorities. "We assume that a total of hundreds of billions of francs will flow out of Switzerland," said the head of the asset management division of UBS, a major Swiss bank, in late 2012.
From Banks to Warehouses
But not everything the banks are losing is actually leaving Switzerland. Customers are admittedly emptying out their accounts and safe deposit boxes. But partly as a result of the many uncertainties in the financial markets, a growing share of the money is being invested in tangible assets, such as art, wine and classic cars. A total of $4 trillion has reportedly been invested in "treasure assets," a category including various kinds of precious objects.
This requires warehouse space that satisfies the most stringent security requirements. Swiss military bunkers blasted deep into Alpine rock are in great demand. But the free ports in Geneva and Zurich are even more popular because they offer what Swiss banks used to: the freedoms of a tax haven and maximum discretion....MUCH MORE