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HSBC Leak Reveals Art World’s Forays into Sketchy Swiss Banking

An HSBC private bank in Geneva (photo by Beat Strasser/Flickr)
An HSBC private bank in Geneva (photo by Beat Strasser/Flickr)

The recent HSBC leak, which has revealed that between 2005 and 2007 the bank’s private Swiss branch helped clients conceal some $102 billion from tax authorities, lists a number of prominent art and culture figures among the 30,000 people whose account information was released.

Collected in 2006 and 2007 by Hervé Falciani, who was working for HSBC at the time as a computer engineer, the leaked files chronicle a range of tactics the bank’s Swiss branch employed to help clients evade and avoid taxes. After he fled to France, Falciani’s files were seized by French police, who shared the information with tax authorities around the world, initiating an immense global investigation. Countries including Belgium and Argentina have since filed lawsuits against HSBC for aiding their citizens to dodge taxes.

“Although there are numerous legitimate reasons to have a Swiss bank account, in some cases individuals took advantage of bank secrecy to hold undeclared accounts. This resulted in private banks, including HSBC’s Swiss private bank, having a number of clients that may not have fully met their applicable tax obligations,” HSBC said in a statement. “We have taken significant steps over the past several years to implement reforms and exit clients who did not meet strict new HSBC standards, including those where we had concerns in relation to tax compliance.”

Now journalists from the Guardian, Le Monde, BBC Panorama, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) have published findings from their own investigations of the documents. Among the notable clients of HSBC’s Swiss private bank are artists, designers, art industry professionals, and supporters of the arts.

  • Michael Aram: The Rhode Island-born designer, who splits his time between New Delhi and New York, opened three accounts with HSBC in Switzerland in 1997. According to the Indian Express, two of them were empty in 2006–07, while a third held $107,837.
Christian Boltanski in his studio in 1990 (photo by Bracha L. Ettinger/Flickr)
Christian Boltanski in his studio in 1990 (photo by Bracha L. Ettinger/Flickr)
  • Christian Boltanski: The French conceptual artist held a numbered account with HSBC’s Swiss branch in 2006–07, which he has since regularized with French authorities, according to Le Monde.
  • Diane von Fürstenberg: Four accounts affiliated with the Belgian-born, New York-based fashion designer — who supports organizations including the Municipal Art Society and Friends of the High Line — turned up in the leaked HSBC files, according to ICIJ. Two were numbered accounts that opened in 1988 and closed 8 and 14 years later. Another, in the name of “Thunderbird Investments Ltd,” listed von Fürstenberg as its beneficial owner. A spokesperson for the designer told ICIJ that she had inherited it from her parents. It was closed in 2002. The fourth account, under the name “Licom Ltd,” listed von Fürstenberg as “attorney B.” It contained as much as $6,268,217 spread across seven affiliated accounts during the 2006–07 period, the leaked documents cover. The designer’s spokesperson claims she never received anything from that account.
  • Helmut Newton: The late fashion photographer, along with a family member, was tied to an HSBC client account numbered “3144FY” between 1994–99, though ICIJ reports that Newton’s role in that account is unknown. Three days after Newton’s death in 2004, a Swiss HSBC account was opened in the name of the Helmut Newton Foundation. According to Foundation board member Andreas Behr, the process of opening that account had been initiated before Newton’s sudden death. In 2006–07 its highest balance was $35,528.
The Serpentine Sackler Gallery (photo by Jose Mesa/Flickr)
The Serpentine Sackler Gallery (photo by Jose Mesa/Flickr)
  • Mortimer Sackler: The late pharmaceuticals billionaire was also a prolific philanthropist; through his charitable organization, the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, he gave London’s Serpentine Gallery the largest single donation it has ever received, helping it to expand with the renovation of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, which opened in 2013. He was affiliated with six HSBC client accounts opened in Switzerland in 2005 and 2006, which collectively controlled 24 bank accounts that, in 2006–07, held as much as $31.3 million. Peter Sharp, an attorney for Sackler’s family, told ICIJ that he was a Swiss resident, owned a home there, and kept all his primary bank accounts there. He died in 2010 in the Swiss resort town Gstaad. His case is just an example of the sort of powerful impact on the art world that many of the clients implicated in the HSBC leak, too numerous to list here, have had.
  • Alfred Taubman: The American developer — credited with formalizing the design of the modern shopping mall — who bought auction house Sotheby’s in 1983, served as its chairman for a decade, and served 10 months in jail after he was found guilty of colluding with Christie’s to fix prices, has been tied to six HSBC accounts in Switzerland. He was listed as the beneficial owner of four of them, all of which were closed by 2007. Another client account to which he was tied, named “M.L.P. MOSCOW LOGISTICS PARK LTD,” was opened in 1998 and held no more than $13,706 in 2006–07. A spokesperson for Taubman told ICIJ that those HSBC accounts were tied to a development company he’d invested in that was working on projects in Russia.

To explore the leaked HSBC files further, visit the Guardian and ICIJ‘s websites devoted to the investigation.

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