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The Ultimate Walk-In Closet

The Ultimate Walk-In Closet

Christie’s Offers Art Storage in Brooklyn

The Wall Street Journal 4/26/2010


What does Red Hook have in common with Geneva and Singapore? It’s about to become one of the world’s biggest vaults for fine art.

A subsidiary of the auction house Christie’s International PLC is converting a hulking century-old factory in the waterfront Brooklyn neighborhood into a high-security storage site designed to hold millions of dollars’ worth of art. It aims to open the facility’s doors in June.

In moving into the storage business, Christie’s is walking a delicate line—attempting to protect the privacy of its collectors amid growing global initiatives to crack down on tax fraud and antiquities looting. Some governments have begun asking collectors and dealers more questions about the pieces they store in the famously discreet storage spaces. Customs officials say they’re trying to deter potential smugglers and money launderers from hiding assets or stashing stolen or looted works.

Christie’s said it will run credit checks on customers and check stored items against registries of stolen art, but added that it can’t police everything it brings into its new warehouse.

The company will also need to convince collectors that an auction house can double as an art holder. Competitor Bob Crozier, who owns five art warehouses in the area, said the new venture could allow Christie’s to gain intelligence about collectors that could lead to more lucrative consignments for auction. Longtime New York collector Zöe Dictrow said her colleagues might feel “self-conscious” about storing pieces at a site overseen by an auctioneer.

But Christie’s Fine Art Storage Services, or CFASS, the subsidiary that runs Christie’s storage operation, said its independent storage staff won’t divulge anything about its clients or their holdings, even to Christie’s auction specialists.

“We aren’t sharing Rolodexes,” said Joe Stasko, the subsidiary’s international managing director.

The company’s new storehouse on Brooklyn’s western waterfront looms over a block of Imlay Street warehouses that store ginger and beer. During a recent visit, Joel Weinberg, general manager of CFASS, had pricier cargo in mind for his new headquarters. After burrowing into the building’s cavernous recesses, he pointed to a dim corner and joked: “Here’s where we’re planning to put the Ark of the Covenant.”

In fact, the space is equipped to hold everything from photographs to wall-size paintings and antique cars. In all, the 235,000-square-foot site has enough floor space to blanket four football fields in art.

Christie’s—which first ventured into the storage arena in 1984, when it opened a brick warehouse in London—is also carving up storage space it recently leased in the Singapore FreePort, a vast, duty-free warehouse that will open May 18 near the Changi Airport. Next fall, Christie’s aims to open a 90,000 square-foot storage facility outside Paris’s city limits.

The company’s push into global art storage comes as many younger buyers, after amassing art over the past decade, realize they’ve run out of space in their closets and basements to store it all. Insurance companies are prodding them to spread their disaster-related risks by storing them at professional facilities.

Space is perennially tight among the New York’s dozen-odd art warehouses, according to their managers. SD Fine Art Storage & Services in the South Bronx said its occupancy rate topped 80% three years ago and hasn’t varied much since, even with the recession.

“The market is volatile, but that big installation you bought doesn’t shrink just because it’s worth half as much,” said Chris Wise, SD’s sales director.

In September 2008, Christie’s signed a 50-year lease on the Red Hook building, and has since spent $30 million getting it ready. At least 245 motion-sensitive cameras are being stationed through its exterior and interiors. Beyond and above the security booth and lobby are six floors of block-long corridors that lead to a freight elevator on the southern end that’s large enough to lift an SUV—or a Jeff Koons sculpture.

Private and shared rooms sprout off the corridors and come in sizes ranging from a small bedroom to an entire floor for about $9.50 per square foot per month. That is along the upper end of the industry’s $4-to-$10-per-square-foot range for art storage, but Mr. Stasko said the price includes services such as repacking, which often elicit additional charges elsewhere.

Confidentiality remains a primary draw for collectors. Staff in Red Hook will document the surface condition of incoming artworks but won’t ask for lengthy ownership histories or check authenticity claims. Mr. Stasko added: “We aren’t in the position to do much research—we’re just storing it.”

Agents at U.S. Customs & Border Protection screen incoming objects but don’t ask tenants at warehouses to keep up-to-date inventories afterward.

In Red Hook, the art warehouse has mainly received a positive reaction from those who know about it. Josh Keller, executive director of the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation, said: “We’ve got a lot of people around here who like art.”