Priceless MASTERPIECES and DIAMONDS locked away in freeports SCANDAL

More than 1200 Italian Art Treasures damaged by the earthquake in Amatrice on Aug.24 have been moved to a storage unit of the School of the Forestry Corps in Cittaducale, central Italy on October 26, 2016 to be cleaned and restored, though some of them were irretrievably damaged. The earthquake damaged churches, palaces, museums and medieval towers. This rescue was the first mission of the new Italian Blue Helmet force dedicated to defending cultural heritage. The group of 60 police officers and art experts has been compared to the Monuments Men who saved artefacts from Nazi looting, depicted in the 2014 George Clooney film. When the 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck central Italy devastating the town of Amatrice, the 60 modern-day Monuments Men; headed to the rubble. After bodies had been removed from the rubble the squad worked with firemen to carry statues of Madonnas out of dangerously crumbling churches before looters could swoop. The squad have entered churches, museums and town halls, all with an eye to saving the territory's heritage, and its very memory of its past. Aided by cranes, robots, drones and a dash of daring, they saved more than 1200 artefacts. The work has been risky and painstaking. Paintings, statues and ecclesiastical objects, like crucifixes and processional crosses have been bundled and sent to what amount to field hospitals for art and artifacts, for preservation and an early evaluation of the damage. The finds are being stored in a huge garage in the town of Cittaducale, where neatly labelled statues are lined up like shop mannequins, some wrapped in plastic, alongside rows of church bells, candlesticks and crates of shattered pieces of church frescoes that restorers hope to piece together. Most of the pieces are religious art. The pieces would be restored before returning home. Photo by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM

Billions of pounds are being easily laundered through unregulated international tax free zones.

Diamonds, art, gold, luxury cars and wine are among the high-value assets hidden in freeports from tax authorities and law enforcement.

Freeports used to be grubby industrial warehouses, tax-free zones for storing goods in transit such as widgets or sacks of grain. The idea was that trade was sped up by granting freedoms from tax or customs duties, which would only be paid at the final destination.

But they have now been transformed into smart, armoured treasure-boxes used to store – and sometimes hide – high value assets from prying eyes.

“There is nothing illegal in storing something in a freeport,”  FBI special agent Meredith Savona told Byline Times. “But they do lend themselves to ill-gotten gains and ill-gotten artwork being stored there.

“Something can sit there for years until the statute of limitations has run out. They are extremely opaque and there can be multiple transactions within. So, you can basically launder the provenance.”

The best known freeport is sited near Geneva airport and is reputed to hold billions of dollars’ of art. The storage complex also houses art galleries and viewing rooms, meaning that dealers and their clients can see and trade in Picassos or Warhols without the art even leaving the strong rooms. No questions asked.

Multiples cases of looted antiquities discovered in the vaults in Geneva eventually led to the Swiss authorities tightening up controls.

The transformation of freeports has been triggered by a rise in prices and investment in tangible assets in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, as well as increasingly sophisticated methods of “tax optimisation”.

“It’s all legal,” one London dealer said. “Working out the best way of avoiding or reducing tax has become a serious consideration for art buyers, and they avoid tax by sending their purchases directly to freeports.”

Today, the storage of such assets in freeports is a billion-dollar business, with operators investing heavily in new, state-of-the-art facilities such as Arcis, which opened in New York this year and boasts the highest security and museum-quality climate and humidity controls.

However much the operators insist that everything is well-regulated and controlled, a freeport is a little like a hotel. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors.

A classic way of money-laundering via freeports is to buy an asset with ill-gotten gains and obscure the dirty money by carrying out multiple transactions until the paper trail becomes difficult to follow.

This “layering”, as it is known, can be conducted in a freeport, with the asset changing hands multiple times without moving an inch. The asset is then put back on the market and sold – for money that is now squeaky-clean.

While operators insist that all is above board, there is little doubt that money-laundering, storage of looted or stolen art, and tax evasion is all going on behind those 50cm doors.