Billionaires are storing hundreds of millions of dollars of art on superyachts
With its plastic-looking exterior, low ceilings and chemical toilets, the yacht is the cousin of the caravan. However, there’s something alluring about a yacht. A floating lifestyle, it is - in many cases - a larger, more luxurious version of the average house. Superyachts, defined as having a length of 24 metres or more, fulfil this desire for scale even more so.
However, there are now an increasing number of superyachts exceeding 64 metres and those over 3,000 tonnes require full merchant navy certification for all deck and engineering officers. While this would bankrupt the average family within hours, it’s perhaps an even more absurd problem which owners are preoccupied with.
A number of billionaires are keeping priceless works of art on the high seas according to experts who have aided in their preservation. Rather than protect them from the perils of piracy, the dangers facing the artworks are slightly more pedestrian. Unruly children and champagne corks have both come under fire.
The trend for these nautical collections was first discovered last year when Joe Lewis’ superyacht was moored on London’s Thames. Lewis has an estimated $5.1bn (£3.9bn) fortune and owns a majority stake in Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. However, he also owns the $264m (£200m) superyacht Aviva and when a reporter peered through one of its windows, Francis Bacon’s Triptych 1974–1977 was seen hanging on the lower deck.
However, in some cases, the collections are thought to be worth more than the vessels. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and owner of Manchester City Football Club, has several hundred pieces aboard his $460m (£350m) superyacht Topaz.
This is according to art historian and conservator Pandora Mather-Lees. Some yachts boast “better collections than some national museums”, she explains. However, housing them here poses problems. Her help was sought by a billionaire who owned a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting.
“His kids had thrown their cornflakes at it over breakfast on his yacht because they thought it was scary,” she explains. “And the crew had made the damage worse by wiping them off the painting.” Mather-Lees neglected to name the painting or the owner but a Basquiat painting depicting a deranged, angry face sold at auction for a US record of $110.5m (£84.5m) in 2017.
The crew “just thought it was some painting, they had no idea it was worth many millions,” Mather-Lees said. “They are expected to know how to serve the owners at sea, not to know about paintings and art. But, now that the rich are increasingly bringing their art collections on board their yachts it’s vital that captains and crew know how to care for these pieces.”
Having spotted a gap in the market, Mather-Lees now runs a $340-per-day course teaching yacht crews about how to look after such art collections. “Obviously they want to show off their art collection when guests come on board … It acts as an icebreaker, and says volumes about their taste,” she told an audience last year at the Superyacht Investor conference in the Landmark Hotel in London. “But yachts are not art galleries and when something goes wrong it’s obviously very unfortunate and a big burden on the crew and the owners become very unhappy.”
Helen Robertson is a conservator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. A stately, traditional and quintessentially English setting, it couldn’t be further from the sparkling shores of Saint-Tropez. However, Robertson advises wealthy yacht owners on looking after their seafaring art collections.
“I used to work as a chief steward on superyachts so I have seen some of the problems first hand,” she explained. “I’ve worked on a vessel with $450m of works of cultural value on board.”
It’s been suggested that such huge collections are placed on yachts to avoid taxes. “In general, tax law favours the wealthy. Complexity favours the wealthy,” Artnet News reporter Tim Schneider told Vox. “Wealthy people are the ones who can afford to hire accountants and lawyers who can find all the loopholes. The more complex we get in terms of all of these different variances of international law and international bodies, whether it’s setting up offshore shell corporations and trusts or [buying] floating vessels that are robust enough that you can put high-value art on them, I think you have opportunities to unearth [tax] advantages you wouldn’t [otherwise] have.”
“Something people always say to me is ‘why on earth would you carry art on yachts?’,” Helen Robertson said to the Guardian. “But yachts can be very controllable. Systems for temperature and humidity can surpass those you would find in galleries.”
However, issues do arise - such as when the crew of one yacht accidentally broke a $100,000 lamp. “It was the end of a Christmas and new year charter, and everyone was a bit worse for wear,” Robertson recalls. “The crew decided to rugby pass the cushions from the deck into the saloon, and one of them hit the lamp.” In further crew-based hijinx, a work drinks scenario turned sour when an errant champagne cork struck a multi-million-dollar painting.
But it is probably Tilman Kriesel, founder of Tilman Kriesel Art Advisors, who has the most absurd stories. One in particular centres on a painting by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, whose work has fetched sums exceeding $80m. The painting in question was too tall for the yacht. “We turned the piece by 90 degrees,” Kriesel explains. “The artist would probably be turning in his grave, but we took a deep breath and said ‘it’s your painting, do what you like’.”
Another of his clients owned a piece by the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. He wanted to display the piece on the stern deck where, on superyachts, there may be access to speed boats or jet skis. However, the painting was the wrong size. “In the end,” Kriesel admits, “we cut it up to make it fit.”
While the rest of us are praying for payday or worrying about another recession, billionaires clearly have a whole roster of their own problems. In a world where the richest one per cent own nearly half of the world’s wealth, perhaps this is to be expected.