London — Corporations worried about the bottom line are taking a look at their office walls.
Over decades, many of the world’s wealthiest banks and companies have built up art collections, rich in modern masters, that are the envy of many museums. Now, some are selling off works that adorn offices and boardrooms — some from choice, but others to pay off hungry creditors.
The latter category includes collapsed bank Lehman Brothers, whose multimillion-dollar collection of works by Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter and others is going under the hammer next month.
“Over the last five or six years we’ve dealt with more and more corporate as well as private clients,” said Saul Ingram, head of European corporate art services at Sotheby’s auction house.
“Obviously there have been economic changes in the last couple of years, and I think that has heralded a change in attitudes — that these collections need to be trimmed, to focus on quality.”
Cathy Elkies, head of private and corporate collections at Christie’s, also says she has seen an increase in the corporate side of the business, and expects it to continue.
“In some cases, organizations are editing and refocusing their collections,” she said. “Others are looking to completely divest themselves of their art offerings.”
Corporations collect art for a variety of reasons, of which turning a profit is often the least important. Some companies like to see supporting emerging artists as a form of corporate social responsibility, or philanthropy — works can be lent to museums and galleries for shows.
Others use art to flaunt their corporate wealth. Fred Goodwin, former chief executive of the once high-flying but now state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland used to boast about the David Hockney in his office.
Around the world, companies are sitting on artistic riches that the public seldom sees. The JP Morgan Chase Art Collection, founded by David Rockefeller in 1959, has 30,000 pieces, including works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol.
In Britain, the banks RBS, HSBC and Barclays all have large caches of art.
Germany’s Deutsche Bank began collecting art in the 1970s and now has a trove of more than 56,000 works, by artists including Joseph Beuys, Henri Matisse and Nan Goldin, displayed on the walls of its offices and branches in 48 countries.
Next month’s Lehman Brothers auctions in at Sotheby’s in New York and Christie’s in London are expected to raise $12 million for the bank’s creditors — a significant sum, though only a tiny fraction of the $613 billion in debts held by Lehman.