It hasn't been a pretty picture for the banks. But there has been no shortage of them — abstract, modern, old masters — hanging in the hallways or sitting in storerooms. The art should get out more, to give the taxpayers — who have been so generous with the financial sector — an aesthetic return.
Deutsche Bank is believed to own the largest corporate collection in the world, with some 60,000 pieces of contemporary art. UBS owns 40,000 pieces and JPMorgan 30,000. Combined, that approaches what MoMA has. Banks have various explanations for their hoarding instincts: lots of walls to cover, clients to impress, corporate identities to build. Or perhaps just some past director was a devoted patron.
If banks were temples of culture rather than lucre, the collections would be easy to justify. But as a financial asset, art is of dubious value. Much of it isn't worth a lot — some 400 works owned by Lehman Brothers, including ones by Roy Lichtenstein and Annie Leibovitz, are only expected to fetch about $1 million at an upcoming auction. And it's hard to believe Andy Warhol or Damian Hirst ever helped close an IPO mandate.
At least some banks take care of their treasures. JPMorgan, whose collection was started a half-century ago by David Rockefeller at Chase Manhattan, has a well-regarded curator. But many banks don't even know what's boxed up in the basement, having inherited artwork in takeovers.
Some do make an effort to share their artistic wealth. Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena invites the public to see some of its impressive collection that stretches back to the Renaissance. UBS lets Britain's Tate Museum cherry-pick from its collection. But these efforts don't often come to much. The Tate currently has only three of the Swiss bank's pieces on display.
Perhaps thanks to the crisis, the attitude may be changing. Royal Bank of Scotland has initiated plans to show its vast and long-cloistered stash of British art, including works by LS Lowry and David Hockney, to the public.
RBS has actually shown shrewder discretion in art than banking. In the largely disastrous acquisition of ABN Amro, RBS allowed the Dutch bank to hive off its 16,000-piece collection to a foundation while retaining access to it. The art of that deal may have been its smartest component.