Wealthy store gold, art inside Singapore’s tax-free ‘Fort Knox’

Adam Majendie

Singapore’s maximum-security vault for art, gold and valuables opening today will allow the city- state to match Hong Kong and Beijing as an Asian center for art, said Christie’s International’s regional chief.

The Singapore FreePort Pte’s 30,000 square meters (323,000 square feet) of strong rooms — enough to cover about six football fields — are inside Changi International airport, allowing non-resident collectors to store valuables such as jewels and wine without paying taxes or filing customs forms.

“It’s a state-of-the-art facility,” said Francois Curiel, Asia president of Christie’s, which has leased a floor of the building to provide storage for private clients. “Singapore will again become an important centre for art.”

Shareholders in the project, modeled after the freeports in Switzerland, include Singapore’s National Arts Council and National Heritage Board as part of the government’s effort to tap the growing private wealth in the region spent on art and entertainment. Singapore has invested more than $1 billion in the past decade on arts facilities such as museums, concert halls and exhibitions.

“The art market in Asia is growing as fast as the regional economy,” said Alain Vandenborre, president and co- founder of the project with chairman Yves Bouvier, who is also head of Geneva-based fine-art shipping company Natural Le Coultre. “Singapore is probably the only place like Switzerland that offers the required stability, neutrality and security.”

Vintage Cars

The list of storable items at the Freeport is extensive, including fine art, jewelry, watches, diamonds, precious metals, antiques, vintage cars, wine, cigars, carpets and confidential documents. Space in the building is already 98 percent leased, and the company is planning to add another 25,000 square meters, much of which has already been reserved, Vandenborre said.

“The Singapore Freeport is a golden link in the value chain to promote Singapore as a centre for art, culture and antiquities and for storage and sale of such high value items,” said Tommy Koh, chairman of the National Heritage Boar

Collectors who store works will be allowed to exhibit them in the city’s museums without having to pay taxes or file customs forms, the Freeport’s website says.

Arad’s Lattice

The low, flat, maximum-security building was designed by Swiss architects Benedicte Montant and Carmelo Stendardo and includes energy-saving features such as a thermal insulating structure and vegetation-covered walls to help maintain the precise temperatures and humidity levels inside. Dominating the lobby is a vast lattice-like structure by sculptor Ron Arad.

“It’s like Fort Knox,” said Lorenzo Rudolf, former director of Art Basel, who is organizing a new international art fair in Singapore in January.

Christie’s leased about 40 percent of the storage as part of the company’s plan to expand its private clients business, Curiel said. The Singapore Freeport supplements the vault Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services has in London and another one that the company opened in New York in March, he said.

“The Singapore government was very clever and realized China is developing as a hub for art in Asia and Singapore was losing out, so they looked around the world and they saw the model of the Geneva Freeport,” Curiel said. “This puts Singapore back on a par with Hong Kong and Beijing as a center for art in Asia.”

Christie’s, Sotheby’s

Christie’s stopped holding art auctions in Singapore in 2002, moving the Southeast Asian sale to Hong Kong. Rival Sotheby’s followed suit in 2008.

“In the short term, Singapore might not be able to compete with Hong Kong as an arts hub because it needs time to build this up,” said collector and My Humble Art Space Chief Executive Michael Wang. “But once Singapore starts with this, it won’t be slow.”

As well as strong rooms for storage of valuables and basement vaults for gold, the Singapore Freeport also has exhibition space for clients to show collections. The first opens today by Geneva-based art dealer Bartha & Senarclens, which will show works by artists including Fernando Botero, Julian Schnabel and Marc Quinn. The exhibition, by private appointment only, runs through May 23.

Chief Executive Officer Frederic de Senarclens said works from the exhibition that are not sold would be stored at the Freeport.

“There’s a growing number of clients in Asia for international art,” he said.