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Why A Lot Of Very Expensive Art Is Disappearing Into Storage


It's a good time to be in the art business. There are a lot of headlines about masterpieces selling for record prices. But what happens to the art in between auctions? Turns out that much of it is not displayed in homes or galleries. It's kept in storage. Julia Simon of NPR's Planet Money podcast takes us to what some refer to as an art graveyard.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: In Newark, Del., there's a big, nondescript building owned by a guy named Fritz Dietl. Fritz took me inside and up to a huge metal cage.


SIMON: Wow. It's cavernous. Twenty-foot ceilings. And as far back and as far up as I can see, boxes.

FRITZ DIETL: Everything that you see in here is artwork, yeah. Everything. We only store artwork.

SIMON: Masterpieces from every era, worthy of the best museums in the world. The public isn't allowed in. Even the owners might not lay eyes on the art for years at a time. It's just boxes.

So this could be a sculpture or a painting? You can't tell me what's inside.

DIETL: I definitely cannot tell you what's inside.

SIMON: You know, I have a feeling. This gives me a Monet vibe.

DIETL: (Laughter).

SIMON: (Laughter). It's kind of about the size of the "Water Lilies."

The thing about a million-dollar painting is, unlike a million-dollar apartment, you can move it anywhere in the world. The high-end art market has been exploding in the last few years. And as more and more art changes hands moving across borders, more and more art is ending up in warehouses like this one called free ports.

So this might sound like a weird question, but, are we technically - where are we now? Are we in America? (Laughter).

DIETL: Yes, definitely still in America. We are a designated foreign trade zone warehouse. So for U.S. customs purposes, we have some property here that hasn't formally entered the United States.

AMBER NOLAND: Free ports are used in the art world to hold work to delay taxation.

SIMON: This is Amber Noland. She manages art for wealthy collectors. And when her clients are buying art as an investment, she advises them the best place for it is often in a box.

NOLAND: The work can live there and be immune to any type of taxation.

SIMON: Amber says her clients store about $300 million worth of art in free ports all around the world. There are now free ports in Geneva, Singapore, China. This spring, New York opens one. At the free port in Delaware with Fritz Dietl, after just a few minutes looking down into the cavern full of art -

You just turned off the light. Do you keep it in darkness?

DIETL: Yes, absolutely.


SIMON: And then they close the gate. Julia Simon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.