Panama paintings: how the rich impoverish art

To you and me, a painting is a work of art.

It has been crafted by an artist who spent years learning and developing their skills, who may have put years of effort into that single painting. It is a part of our culture: in a couple of centuries time, when all the terabytes of digital candyfloss have vanished into the bit-bucket of history, today’s paintings should provide the same sort of window on twenty-first century culture as Vermeer and Rembrandt do on the Netherlands of their time.

But to those who can afford to buy the more expensive paintings, they are simply movable property. As the Panama Papers are starting to show, many of those who own parts of our cultural heritage do so as a means of becoming more wealthy.

Look through a recent catalogue raisonné of any reasonably high-valued artist, and you will see countless paintings which are in private collections, or perhaps unaccounted for altogether. Many of the most important paintings of Monet, Cézanne, Pissarro, Degas, and many others have not seen the light of public exhibition for many decades, and some have not even been seen or traced since the 1940s or 1950s.

If you want to view them, the best places to visit would be the world’s freeports, of which the largest and most valuable is surely that at Geneva. There the wealthy, those whose names appear in the Panama Papers, and many more who still remain anonymous, have stashed away their movable property, safe from the tax man, and the likes of you and I.

Sometimes these paintings appear in the catalogues of auction houses, giving us a brief glimpse of the riches of which society is deprived. But many of these works are strictly off the record, untraced and untraceable, so that their value is completely concealed. Initial revelations about missing Modiglianis, van Goghs, and others are given in this fascinating account by the ICIJ.

There are more pervasive and sinister effects of these secret spoils too.

Because the high end of the art market is dominated by the world’s super-rich, they drive prices up into their league, where a couple of extra zeros at the end of the price is all the better. Comparable works in public ownership, and in the galleries around the world which have to keep up with these dizzying prices, are also prodigiously valuable. This increases the costs of many of the overheads associated with their ownership and display. Those galleries therefore have inflated budgets, and putting together exhibitions becomes seriously expensive. Although some of those costs are met by sponsorship, in the end, it is we, visitors, and donors to public art funds, who foot the bill.

The art market is distorted into what is essentially an investment market, driven by speculation and the thirst for profit, regardless of cultural heritage. Read any of the books written by those who have worked in auction houses and other sectors in the trade, and you will be shocked at what happens. We get occasional glimpses: although I do like Peter Doig’s paintings, and agree with the critic’s assessment that he is “a jewel of genuine imagination, sincere work, and humble creativity”, was his The Architect’s Home in the Ravine really worth $12 million at auction in 2013?

There are many fine modern painters whose works are, by comparison, absurdly undervalued, and don’t they suffer as a result. Just as the super-rich are polarising society, so the effects of their art investments are polarising art itself.

It is this market for movable property, this callous disinterest in cultural heritage or art, which fuels the modern Art Industry. And the Panama Papers are already helping to lift the lid on some of its previously well-guarded secrets. After all, using your tax-free wealth to sequester cultural objects in freeports is little different in its effect from the Nazis’ looting works of art across Europe.