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High-tech storage dungeons and the cultural treasures hidden inside37:27
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Amedeo Modigliani in his studio, 1910s. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Amedeo Modigliani in his studio, 1910s. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Freeports were originally established as special duty-free facilities to temporarily store basic, perishable goods like grain, where normal customs and tax rules don't apply. But nowadays, these extra-legal entities serve a very different purpose: a fortress where the über-rich can safely stash hard-assets away from prying regulatory eyes. These high-tech dungeons house goods such as rare wines, diamonds, vintage cars, and also something valuable to society as a whole: fine art collections.

Thanks to the vast and opaque global network of freeports, the locations and ownership of priceless works of art, including Modigliani's "Seated Man with a Cane," are unknown and virtually untraceable. In this episode of the show, Ben Brock Johnson (Endless Thread) unravels the bitter dispute over that singular painting, and takes us to a place where cultural treasures are so well hidden from our sight, we don’t even know we miss them.


Show notes: 

Special thanks to journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. Big thanks to Professor John Zarobell at the University of San Francisco. Also thanks to Professor Dara Orenstein for sharing her research with us.


Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Nora Saks: Welcome to Last Seen. From WBUR - Boston’s NPR Station. I’m Nora Saks, your host. Or maybe, curator. Because this time, we’ve got ten new mysteries, from ten different contributors, about unexpected people, places, and things that have gone missing. And whether or not they can or even should be found. Today on the show, Ben Brock Johnson takes us to a place where things are so well hidden from our sight - we don’t even know we miss them.

[MUSIC]

Ben Brock Johnson: I want to take you back to the ancient times of 2016. And something that was a huge deal, and yet most of us have kind of forgotten about it. I’m talking about the Panama Papers.

[NBC Broadcast: The so-called Panama Papers believed to be the biggest data leak in history are exposing how some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people]

Ben: So the leak is so big, it's 11 million documents, attorney-client documents, financial documents, information about over 200,000 offshore entities - that it requires hundreds of journalists to get together and cull through the documents just to figure out what's in them.

Nora: What’s in them?

Ben: They figure out that this leak is really fundamentally about wealth and where it is stored. One of the things that the Panama Papers exposes is this kind of crucial update in a long-running story about a dispute between two families over a single painting by this artist, Amedeo Modigliani.

He's a Jewish Italian artist who lived around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was famous for these beautiful nudes and portraits, but also for like extending necks in faces in this surrealist way. And like a lot of famous artists, he lived and died poor, only to have his sculpture and paintings become worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Highly sought after.

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[Auctioneer: 85 million dollars now, 85 million…90 million dollars, 90 million]

Ben: The art world freaks out about this stuff, really salivates over it.

[Auctioneer: Here we have a woman behind us, totally naked voluptuous dignified beautiful]

Ben: And the specific piece of artwork that we learn about in the Panama Papers is called "Seated Man with a Cane."

So, Nora, this painting is actually part of a bitter long-running dispute between two families. The dispute is about the rightful owner of this particular Modigliani painting. And what we learn from the Panama Papers is that one of the families involved appears to be lying about who actually owns this painting, "Seated Man with a Cane."

Nora: What happens when this revelation comes to light?

Ben: The Swiss government seizes the painting. 

Nora: So, the painting is in Switzerland?

Ben: Sort of. 

Nora: Sort of? 

Ben: So, this Modigliani painting is in something called a Freeport, which it turns out, is this kind of extra-legal entity, something like a foreign trade zone, but not quite. And the story of this particular painting connects to this trend. The trend is that more and more rich people are hiding all kinds of stuff in freeports. The Modigliani painting, "Seated Man with a Cane," is a good example of how freeports are disappearing a bunch of wealth from the world economy in these kind of secret storage areas all over the globe.

Nora: Well, are you going to let us look inside the secret storage?

Ben: I’m going to try. 

Nora: This is episode 2, Out of Time. Alright Ben. Take it away.

[MUSIC]

Ben: My look into freeports started with calling a woman in her apartment. Shocker. Her name is Atossa. Atossa has been, like many of us in the pandemic thinking too much about the famous action movie director Christopher Nolan.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: I'm just really interested if this is, in fact, how his mind works or or if I'm just reading way too much into it, which is extremely possible. I've been locked up for like a year and a half here.

My name is Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and I am a journalist working on my second book. 

Ben: What's your second book about? 

Atossa: My second book is tentatively titled ‘The Hidden Globe,’ and it's about places in the world where the rules don't apply. 

Ben: That seems relevant. 

[MUSIC]

Ben: In 2017, Atossa went looking for a place where the rules don’t apply. A high-security facility in Harlem. Later something like it would be featured in a movie by Christopher Nolan. But for now, it was just an announcement she found interesting.

Atossa: I saw an article that was advertising the opening of a tax-free storage facility in Harlem. And I thought that was kind of weird because Harlem is not the most obvious place for a tax-free storage facility.

[New York City Subway Conductor: The next and last stop is 145th street]

Ben: It’s off the 145 street subway stop in a really residential neighborhood. Lots of brick apartment buildings. The storage facility sticks out. It’s a big, shining, steel and white block with a big purple circle on it. It looks like one of those city storage facilities…but less friendly.

Atossa: It was like a fortress. And that's actually fitting because they named it Arcis, which is which means Fortress in Latin. Also has some sort of feudal connotations, which I'm not sure are super savory, especially for something in a pretty poor neighborhood.

Ben: To enter this Harlem storage fortress, Atossa had to use biometrics.

Ben: Can you describe the vascular scan?

Atossa: I think I recall just putting my arm out, like my forearm, you know, the same way if you're getting your blood drawn kind of like that, your veins have a special pattern. Every forearm is its own work of art.

Ben: Atossa was there to meet two men - Kevin Lay and Tom Sapienza. They co-founded the tax-free storage service. Their target customer base? Rich art collectors with too much expensive stuff. Stuff they maybe need to store super securely and super safely. And super not pay taxes on this stuff-y. You had to go through a bunch of doors and past gates to get in. And once you did, there were these huge viewing rooms and large storage lockers. It had a slick and luxury atmosphere inside too. Except?

Atossa: It's just smelled exactly like an IKEA. It was uncanny. 

Ben: Wow.

Atossa: Well, I guess maybe that's what wood smells like. 

Ben: So like not Swedish meatballs, but something else. 

Atossa: I would be really disturbed if I have a place where I was going to store my Picasso smelled like meatballs.

Ben: Arcis was supposed to tap into New York City’s very developed art scene. It had a place to back up your truck.

Atossa: The intrigue was more in the details. The guys who were running it were telling me that there were generators and then the generators had backup generators and the backup generators had backup generators.

Ben: This place feels like it’s out of the future. But in truth, it was designed as the latest example of an idea that is hundreds of years old. One of the oldest freeports is in Geneva, Switzerland - where Atossa was born.

Atossa: If you visit Geneva, it seems like an old city very sort of grounded in its history. Lots of cobblestones, lots of old stuff. It's a very strange place to grow up. And I think about it all the time. 

Ben: The Geneva Freeport has been around since 1888. Here’s a French documentary translated on a YouTube channel called Best Documentary. Where a general manager in a massive storage and packing area in the well-lit facility is showing off a painting that’s about to travel out of the facility to a museum for limited exhibition.

[Best Documentary Excerpt:

Person 1: Here, look here. It has special antacid paper.

Person 2: What’s that just behind? 

Person 1: A painting by Modigliani. I shouldn’t be telling you that.]

Ben: You can’t really see the painting. Just the structure of the frame. Which is set in this large industrial well-padded box, a plastic-y substance stretched perfectly taut over it. It looks like the shiny ghost of a painting, cut off from air, in what the translator interprets as an isothermal crate.

[Best Documentary Excerpt: 

Narrator: Here, the watchword is secrecy]

The clip in the video footage didn’t seem all that notable when I first saw it. The guy doing the Vannah White on the thing looks pretty bored and not super interested in being in a four-minute clip on YouTube from the Best Documentary channel. But the artist mentioned Jewish Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani is notable. Because one of his most famous paintings, "Seated Man With a Cane," disappeared. For a long time.

Atossa: And this painting actually has a really sad history. It's called "Seated Man with a Cane." And it actually belonged to a Jewish art dealer in Paris named Oscar Stettiner.

Ben: Images of "Seated Man With a Cane" that you can find online show an oil on canvas full-body portrait that is interesting in its contradictions. A dark-suited, Charlie Chaplin-looking fellow in a hat sits straddling a skinny cane, holding a pipe and both hands atop the cane’s hook. But the face of this man is compelling, a slight pucker mouth smile under melancholy eyes. Modigliani died poor at 35. An alcoholic and drug addict with tuberculosis and a reputation as a vagabond. But his paintings quickly became highly sought after and valuable. A Jewish art collector named Oscar Stettiner bought "Seated Man With a Cane" in Paris, where Modigliani had lived at the end of his life. But then, in 1939, Stettiner fled from the imminent Nazi occupation.

Atossa: The Nazis seized the painting. They sold it at an auction to another dealer, and then the painting disappeared.

Ben: Almost 6 decades later, the painting reappeared at an auction. And the grandson of Oscar Stettiner would try to get it back. But then the painting disappeared again. Then again. Eventually, someone discovered it at the Geneva freeport.

This was a big deal. A classic work of a famous artist which had been hidden from public view for the vast majority of its 100-year existence. The story of that century of existence is itself disputed but the painting’s convoluted journey may have involved more than one freeport.

Atossa says this story about a piece of culture we only catch glimpses of when it’s not hidden away in a freeport, is not unique.

Atossa: There was one in the 1990s when an Italian art dealer was found to have been storing looted Roman artifacts at the freeport. That was a big scandal. Less than five years later, they found some Egyptian antiques that turned up there by way of Qatar, the country. And there were mummies in there. Apparently, I didn't see them with my own eyes, but I heard there were mummies.

Ben: OK, I admit, “I heard there were mummies” sounds far-fetched. But freeports, it turns out, are all over the place. A network of facilities in unclear number with a really unclear picture of what’s inside. And the total value of what is inside? Also pretty fuzzy.

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Atossa: Some people estimate that tens of billions, even hundreds of billions worth of art are stored in art freeports. 

Ben: While we may not know what’s inside freeports, we know where freeports are.

Ben: It's like a treasure map where you know where the X is, but you'll never make it there. 

Atossa: Yeah, that's the whole point, I think.

Ben: The stuff inside freeports is supposedly in super high-tech storage. But it gets lost so completely it’s almost removed from time. Past an event horizon.

I’m fascinated by freeports because of their history and because they’re becoming this network of portals across the world where art gets yanked out of our view. Even pulled out of time. Apparently, the director Christopher Nolan is also into Freeports. They play a key role in his 2020 movie, Tenet.

[Excerpt from Tenet (2020):

Clémence Poésy: As I understand it we’re trying to prevent world war three. 

John David Washington: Nuclear Holocaust? 

Clémence Poésy: No, Something worse.] 

Ben: Okay, so I can’t really follow the plot either. But what’s important here is that there’s a time-traveling, nuclear code-having, Russian villain played by Kenneth Branagh, who stores his super valuable art in a Freeport.

[Excerpt from Tenet (2020):

Staff Member: Our logistics department ships to and from any freeport around the world without customs inspection]

Ben: Spies played by Robert Pattinson and John David Washington have to break in and steal the art to prove they’re legit? Time travel? Honestly, I’m not sure and I liked the movie a lot.

Atossa: But the fact that Nolan is playing with this idea that there are objects that can defy time and space is actually really clever. Because that’s what freeports do. Outside of national space for customs purposes. Also sort of, outside of national time, as if, you know, in amber, just for 24 hours on its way somewhere else. 

Ben: Like Atossa, I’m a little obsessed with this idea. That there are these black sites, all over the world, filled with treasure. But Freeports didn’t start as super high-tech art storage loved by fictional supervillains and to really understand what they do today you have to go back to how they got started. Which we will, in a minute.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Ben: The writer I’m learning from, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, says the whole notion of freeports started way back in the early modern period. 14 to 1600. Also known as,

Ben: In the Pirate Times.

Atossa: In Pirate Times.

[ACCORDION MUSIC]

Ben: Back then, freeports existed where it sounds like freeports would exist.

Atossa: Given that world trade mostly happened by ships back in the day, freeports did tend to be near where the ships came in.

Ben: What were those ships coming in with? Pretty basic goods.

Atossa: Typically a freeport would be used to store grain from where the traders were bringing grain from one place, pausing to, you know, get more food and water at a port, leaving the grain there and then moving on elsewhere. 

Ben: And since the goods were not at their final destination, the maritime pit stop paperwork in this burgeoning global trade era was getting annoying. Freeports were a solution.

Atossa: I think it saved people time and money, right. If you're bringing bananas from one place to the next and you've got to stop somewhere instead of, you know, offloading the bananas and checking with customs and, you know, paying the tax and then the next day taking the bananas out of the facility, putting it back on the ship. It's just it's a lot of admin crap, that no one really wants to deal with.

Ben: Efforts to skip annoying paperwork might be even older than pirate times. Some point to a duty-free hub on the Greek island Delos established by the Romans in the year 166 BCE. The key thing here is in the beginning it’s all perishable stuff. It’s very temporary storage. And this has a positive impact on the industry around ports. Merchants get where they’re going faster. The goods can come off the ship and be in safe storage for a bit. It’s cheaper!

Atossa: And then some clever accountants and capitalists seized on it and made it work for them. And the world is full of these little provisions. Freeports are definitely one of them.

Ben: Over the decades and centuries, as our globally connected world evolves, and our accounting practices develop, so do freeports. Eventually, you can store all kinds of things in freeports. And depending on the country you’re in, you can call all kinds of facilities, freeports.

Atossa: You end up putting a wine cave in Luxembourg in the same category as like a sweatshop in Vietnam.

Ben: And then right around the time the Nazis are starting to take over the world and stealing or destroying vast amounts of artwork in the process. Around the time Oscar Stettner was fleeing Paris and leaving "Seated Man With a Cane" behind, freeports start to enter their final form. As not just a weigh station. But a tax haven. Which takes hold in the second half of the 20th century.

Atossa: And, you know, this was a period when world trade, it's not that there wasn't globalization before, but world trade and financialization was really picking up. And so this idea that you can kind of pick and choose a jurisdiction and do a kind of arbitrage between places, that became a popular way of doing business.

Ben: Anyone even vaguely following the money has probably heard of offshoring. Putting funds in the Cayman Islands. Basically storing money in places where taxes can’t get at it. And like these other loopholes exploited by the super-rich, freeports have become really useful as places to store wealth. But not ones and zeros. Like, actual physical treasure. Treasure gets its value by being scarce, right? Or seeming scarce. According to the people who are keeping tabs on treasure.

John Zarobell: The art market is a relatively opaque structure right now. 

Ben: Yeah, why is it so mysterious? 

John: Well, because privacy is of incredible value, right? 

Ben: But why? I don't know. This is just a dumb idiot question. But I feel like. Like why? Why? 

John: Well, it's kind of like you keep your treasure in the dungeon, right? You don't, you don't put it in the front yard.

[BEN AND JOHN LAUGH]

John: My name is John Zarobell. I am a former museum curator and university professor. Now I teach international studies. My research is primarily been on the art market over the last ten years.

Ben: John read an article in the New York Times about freeports back in 2012 - and ever since, he’s been obsessed with freeports, the people who use them and the people who run them.

John: But the real challenge is that they're very good at keeping secrets and you can only get certain kinds of information.

Ben: Over the last century, one specific type of treasure being stored in high-tech dungeons has become more popular - art. That’s because most other ways of storing value — cash, bank accounts, land, stocks - have become more regulated. And when it comes to international finance, John says the regulations have ramped up even more in the last couple of decades. Why?

John: Basically 9/11, I think really changed the dynamic. And it started to become clear that in order to stop terrorism, they had to stop financing, and in order to stop financing, then they had to look a lot more carefully at how money was being transferred across international borders. And so the anti-money laundering directives really got going after 2001.

Ben: As countries around the world have slowly made traditional money laundering slightly harder, John says art has remained slower to be regulated. In fact, John has called art the most unregulated industry on the planet. Which makes it a pretty good area to play in if you’re rich. As an investment, fine art has been quietly outperforming the S&P 500 since the mid-90s.

John: Real wages for working people haven't gone up for 30 years, but the really wealthy people are being able to secret or amass greater and greater wealth that needs to find outlets. Right? They want to invest that money. They don't want to just stash it in a mattress. They want to invest that money in something. And part of that investment is going to be in art and collectibles, which are, of course, hard assets. And those places need someplace to live. Freeports end up becoming the kind of perfect structure, right? I mean, they existed since the 19th century, even the 18th century, there were previous structures like freeports, right? But only in the 21st century do they start to make this kind of sense.

Ben: Stashing hard assets from the art trade in high-tech dungeons is getting more difficult, in some places.

John: Freeports provide an excellent example of how you can circumvent that. Right, by shipping a work of art to a place that's not actually in any country.

Ben: People who hoard this stuff can play more complicated shell games, too. Say you have a piece of artwork and you decide to put it in the Geneva freeport. And when it goes in, you are the owner. But inside the freeport, you actually sell it to another collector who happens to have work in that same freeport. That transaction avoids all kinds of paperwork and - of course - taxes. And then maybe the new owner decides to send the artwork to a different freeport in Luxembourg. Or the one in Beijing. Or Singapore. Again, avoiding the scrutiny of prying, regulatory eyes. Now, it’s not just the owner of the artwork that’s been lost to public view. It is also the physical location of it.

"Seated Man With A Cane" is at the center of a similar kind of shell game. The family of its original owner, the Jewish art dealer Oscar Stettiner, has been trying to track it down ever since the Nazis reportedly took it in World War II. Stettiner himself had tried to get the piece back after the war ended, but in the ensuing chaos of a global conflict, the painting had disappeared from Paris, supposedly sold to an American. It wouldn’t reappear until 1996 at a Christie’s auction in London, where it fetched a several million dollar bid.

[Excerpt from CBC: 

Newscaster: Soon, it was on display in London and New York. In galleries owned by a powerful family of international art dealers - The Nahmads.]

Ben: And a new family became connected to Seated Man With a Cane. The Nahmad family. Another Jewish art dealing family that is considered by some to be the single biggest buying force in fine art. The grandson of Stettiner quickly filed a claim against the Nahmads. But the Nahmad family said, no no, we don’t own the painting! We just represent the company that owns it called IAC. International Art Center.

It wasn’t until twenty years later that the Panama Papers would reveal that this company, the International Art Center, was a shell corporation. Owned solely by the Nahmad family. So the Nahmads did own the painting after all whether or not they had the right to own it. And a combination of shell corporations and freeports, and a dispute over ownership, had disappeared this work of art from public view for decades.

[Excerpt from CBC: 

Richard Golub: They have impeccable reputations and they also have impeccable reputations in their business dealings with other people in the art world.]

Ben: The Canadian Broadcast Corporation interviewed the Nahmad family’s lawyer back in 2016. It was a contentious conversation.

[Excerpt from CBC: 

Richard Golub: There’s nothing else to say, I told you before, there’s nothing else I’m gonna say, because who owns IAC is about as relevant to this as who’s living on Pluto.]

Ben: John recently went to an art crime convention. It was held in the UK. Virtually. And there was a panel featuring people from the FBI and Scotland yard.

John: And I asked them about freeports and the fellow from the FBI basically said straight out they're opaque. Right. We just don't know what's going on there. And if we want to get inside, if we have a good lead, we have to work with our, you know, the regulatory authorities in our partner countries. Right. So they have to use Europol or Interpol in order to make these kinds of requests through a Swiss government.

Ben: Having a fresh lead on something can be hard enough. Connecting to Interpol, who then reaches out to the Swiss government, because you think something might be in a freeport? It’s a rigamarole. John says law enforcement frantically chases this stuff, people illegally digging up artifacts in Mexico or Nigeria selling it on Facebook marketplace to other people who immediately squirrel it away.

John: Once they go into the freeport, they will never find anything else out about it. So you need to find some evidence that something was, you know, looted, stolen, dug up, and sent to that Freeport, right?

Ben: Wow. It's like it's almost like a layer of capital that exists in the world that we can't see. Does that make any sense? 

John: No, absolutely.

Ben: A lot of recent research, including John’s, looks at the impact of a global network of mysterious facilities where the super-wealthy can store, buy, and sell artwork.

Ben:: Do we have any sense of the amount of art? 

John: So, this is something that I've tried to get at and it's hard to discern. But according to various reports, there's around a million works stored in the Geneva Freeport alone. Right? And that is one of a series of freeports around the world. So, you know, we know that there's if there's a million works in this place, we know that there's probably got to be two million works worldwide. 

Ben: We don’t know how many of those works are super valuable. But, "Seated Man With a Cane" for instance has alone been valued at 35 million dollars. That is one piece of art that’s gone missing in a freeport. The information John says we do have mostly from surveys done at the highest levels of the art world suggests the art trade is a 70 billion dollar annual industry.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Freeports. How they’re used and what’s in them. Often, all we have to go on is the statements of the people who own and run them. People who can do their own marketing. John traded emails with the owner of the Geneva freeport a while back.

John: He said, you know, we have more Picasso’s in the Geneva Freeport than any other place on Earth. Right? We have the biggest collection of Picassos here. And that's a provocative statement. And there's no way of verifying it. And of course. But it sends the signal that, you know, if you're someone who's got some Picasso’s you don't want other people to know about and you can't fit them on your walls, this would be a good place for them because there's a lot of other people who've done that, too. 

Ben: If freeports now exist to facilitate secrecy and privacy for people trying to store their valuables, and those valuables are art, the result is a lot of artwork never being seen by humanity. Picasso’s, Modigliani’s "Seated Man With A Cane." Any self-respecting art lover would say this work should be in public view. This is implicit in the cliche, that something “belongs in a museum.” But instead, this art is apparently hanging in the utilitarian transactional viewing rooms of Freeports. And there’s the antiquities piece of this, too. The mummies that Atossa referred to. And other artifacts that are part of our collective understanding of history. John says, in a way, Freeports can represent almost a growing cultural amnesia.

John: A great example of that is when the Benin bronzes came to light, it became clear that the sub-Saharan Africans, you know, that Nigerians before the Renaissance really created a means of generating lifelike images that was far superior to anything that Europe had at the time. And that, of course, is going to disarm any ideas of African art being primitive.

Ben: It’s hard to know how much we don’t know. But John says that without a doubt, in the beginning of this century, freeports are continuing to disappear a lot of stuff from our collective view. And we can only really guess at this stuff, by guessing about the money.

John: There's an organization called Global Financial Integrity that really looks at the money that disappears from, you know, the global south, basically what we consider to be the global south, widely understood. And, you know, money that just disappears from what we would consider to be the poorest countries in the world going into tax havens and just disappearing. Right? And their numbers are pretty shattering. I mean, they're talking about, you know, numbers that are close to a trillion dollars a year. 

Ben: A few years after the Panama Papers were released, Atossa says something started to happen to these places where the rules don’t apply.

Atossa: Freeport's have gotten a bit of a, have hit a rough patch recently, in part because of all of the scandals of looted mummies and whatnot, and also because some of the major figures in the freeport world have had some lawsuit problems.

Ben: Also, problems with authorities. In 2016, just days after the release of the Panama Papers, Swiss authorities used a local law that was barely a year old to march into the Geneva freeport and seize "Seated Man With a Cane." It was a rare case. A moment where the government stepped in and applied the rules to a place where the rules don’t normally apply. In 2017, Stettiner’s case disputing the ownership of the painting was upheld. And in 2020, a new document surfaced supporting the claim. A photograph from 1950, showing the Modigliani painting with a note from a French government official describing it as “stolen.” The Nahmad family, and their lawyers, still dispute this claim. And so the painting, in a way, remains lost, at least for the Stettiner family, to long legal battles.

Atossa told me that Arcis, the fortress-like, super-secure Freeport facility in Harlem, seems to have folded.

Atossa: Arcis has been closed since Halloween of 2020 under mysterious circumstances.

Ben: The building’s still there. But the business inside it may have overstated its ability to circumvent New York state tax law.

Atossa: Arcis was not able to really make a big case for the tax advantages because there just weren't very many advantages to be had in New York.

Ben: But the website for Arcis is still up. So I called the main number one morning to get answers. A man picked up the phone with an unofficial, “Hello?” I asked if this was Arcis and he excitedly said, “Yes!” But when I told him where I was from and why I was calling, the conversation immediately took a hard turn. “This entire conversation is off the record,” he said and he told me to send him an email with my questions. He wouldn’t say anything else, not even whether the facility was still open. I’m still waiting for him to respond to my emailed questions.

In the end, Atossa thinks Arcis was a marketing ploy for some very expensive New York City storage space. The pandemic hit the art trade just like other parts of the global economy. And, there are new laws and financial regulations around the world being written, too in the long slow fallout of the Panama Papers. But that fallout is slow. And freeports are still in use.

Atossa says that one of the possible futures is that freeports become less culturally loaded and more value loaded. Housing diamonds instead of artworks. John thinks that if the way wealth disparity is going continues, leaks like the Panama Papers might turn into something more revolutionary. A dragon can store its treasure in a dungeon. But eventually, dragon slayers show up.

John: The analogy that I would like to make is that in the next revolution, we may see the people storming the free port as opposed to storming the Bastille. 

Ben: Whether or not freeports get stormed in some future wealth war, both John and Atossa see Freeports as continuing their centuries-long existence. After all, freeports, accountants, and the super-wealthy, they’ve all proven their ability to adapt.

Atossa: We'll see more of them pop up in maybe what these people might call second-tier jurisdictions. So not a Dubai or a Singapore, but maybe a Vladivostok or Malta or something like that. But, you know, they've endured, freeports, in various shapes and sizes and functions, have been a part of the world economy for some time. And I don't expect that to stop because I think they're very useful to capitalists. And capital finds a way.

[MUSIC]

Nora: Coming up next week, a story about two astronomers who spend their whole lives searching for something that may not even exist. The largest hidden object in the solar system.

Dean Russell: ​​It’s literally one of the largest unsolved mysteries in human history. And Mike still believes he’s going to find it. He’s obsessed.

Mike Brown: I think it's a little Ahab-like, I am going to I'm going to go find this thing. And it may kill me.


You can find all of our stories and show notes on our website and follow us on Twitter at @LastSeenPodcast.

You can pitch us your story ideas about people, places, and things, that have gone missing. We’re interested in pitches from contributors or just folks who want us to tackle the story. Drop us a line at lastseenwbur@gmail.com.


Ben Brock Johnson Twitter Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.

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Nora Saks Producer
Nora Saks is a producer with WBUR's podcast team. 

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