Melvyn Minnaar: Playthings of the wealthy

By , 1 April 2024

Given the famously hush-hush, shadowy world in which they operate, I was intrigued by a chance meeting over dinner with a visiting Swiss who is in that business: purveyors of highly-guarded, secret storage space for the ultra-rich.

My dinner mate was mainly in the trade of art holdings (make that major or minor masterpieces), but, of course, those things that rich people want to keep out of sight (of tax and other authorities), such as jewels, heirlooms and wine.

The prison-like structure of the warehouses of the Geneva Free Ports & Warehouses Ltd in Switzerland, whence my new-found friend operates, has a somewhat ironic presence in their grey suburban dullness as treasure trove. The purposeful bureaucratic look hides from want and jealousy what the wealthiest hearts’ desire.

Obviously the discrete Swiss wasn’t going to talk about it, but it is estimated that those precious and anonymous spaces house, among loads of booty, 1 000 Picasso pictures. These are never shown or seen by a soul, not to mention the public at large in galleries or museums. Storage spaces like this is for the ultra-rich who buy things simply for their monetary worth. To have and to keep, and to brag about, and to hold as investment to sell for a solid profit when the time arrives.

Art – the right kind – has become the most tradable commodity among the wealthy. It is now the fashionable currency of the rich. A fall-out and consequence of the one-percent bubble, as riches spun out of control in the unhinged neo-capitalist maelstrom, the nature of the art work is changing.

When the one-percent has all the super yachts, wives and wine estates they can play with, art is a delightfully colourful plaything when stock keeps on rising. (It is basically an unregulated global trade.)

This has consequences for what art is and could be and is a complicated, long story.

If you draw the parallel to wine-at-auction, we may be facing similar issues. Switch ‘art’ for ‘wine’ in the paragraphs and you may get my drift of concern.

South Africa’s ultra-wealthy has now also taken to this world of high prices and auction speculation.

Irma Stern’s The Smoker.

A few weeks ago a painting by Irma Stern was sold at auction for R17 156 250. (A work by the King of Kitsch also raised a hefty R2 173 125, which goes to show that ‘taste’ and cash-on-hand do not necessarily connect.)

Auctions of art, wine and such have changed quite substantially since the gilt-edged houses held onto a certain connoisseurship. The current surge has changed the dynamics – and maybe lost the plot and sold out culturally.  

It’s the culture game to play; sociologists could have a field day

Auction catalogues were often documents of provenance, adding prestige to the quality of the art. (Prices paid would confirm the agreement among cognoscenti of the artwork’s aesthetic merit.) There was symmetry of worth between such auctions and cultural flag-bearing institutions such as museums. This has largely come undone – because public institutions cannot compete with super rich art collectors.

Much of that art now sits in warehouses such as those operated by my recent dinner partner, unseen – simply currency.

Is wine heading the same way?

In 2021 a bottle of Grand Vin de Constance 1821 was sold by Strauss & Co for a glittering R967 300. Now that is clearly an unusual sale, but plenty of younger wines with ‘desirable names’ have recently fetched stupid prices at auction. Is this the same disruption of real worth and significance we see in the art world?

The difference, of course, is that the word ‘wine’ means it is to be consumed, to disappear, to leave only, perhaps, a memory. It is, of essence, not in the realm of everlasting treasures – as art masterpieces may or may not be.

Will that bottle of Constantia wine ever be drunk?

My Swiss friend told me all about provenance, research, secrecy, and security, but about the future of such holdings there is no more than the speculation of what the next highest price might be.

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.


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