Lawyers for a big bank recently called Judson Art Warehouse and asked the Queens. N.Y.-based company to repossess works of art that had served as collateral for a loan gone bad.
Two days later a big, air-conditioned truck was rumbling over the broken streets of Manhattan toward an uptown restaurant, accompanied by a warrant-carrying marshal.
Art handlers quickly photographed and packaged the paintings. By day's end they would be catalogued and safely stored in cavernous Judson warehouse just across the East River from the United Nations.
In the weak economy of the past few years, bank repossessions of art have become increasingly common. Judson prides itself on carrying out the work with style - avoiding the pitched conflicts with onetime owners that often arise in repossessions of automobiles and other items.
"It's still very civilized - we're not the repo men of the art world," said warehouse director Thomas Pelham.
In fact, repossession is just one of the services the warehouse provides to banks such as Citibank, Banker's Trust, and Chase Manhattan.
Its "more positive" services includes collection storage, estate viewing, and arrangements for traveling exhibitions.
For instance, Judson is handling all the travel arrangements for Chase's Photoplay exhibit, now traveling around South America and Latin America.
"They are discreet, they are good, and I can trust them," said Manuel E. Gonzalez, director of Chase's art program.
Judson provides safekeeping to 130,000 works of art - more than any other warehouse in the country, it says. Most of works stored are paintings and sculpture, but furniture and other objects also find their way to Judson.
Dust from Long Island City, however, never makes it into the building. This 125,000-square-foot warehouse is immaculate.
It is also cool. Even on a blistering summer day, the temperature will be 68 to 70 degrees, with a humidity of 45% to 55%.
In a special viewing room, Mr. Pelham and owner E. William Judson pause to discuss art and banks. Behind them are a Rubens and a De Kooning, repossessed for bank clients.
Today, banks account for about 20% of the warehouse's business. That segment of the business peaked in 1991, Mr. Judson said.
The surge from banks came with more repossessions and the storage of art securitizing loans, Mr. Pelham added.
From Paint to Paintings
Mr. Judson bought the building, a paint warehouse, believing its East River location would make it a good investment. But the real estate market didn't cooperate and he contemplated other uses.
As landlord to many of New York's most prestigious galleries, he recognized their need for quality storage, he said. In 1985 he opened the old warehouse to store paintings instead of paint and hired Mr. Pelham, who was assistant director of Leo Castelli Gallery in Manhattan's trendy SoHo district.
As the art market slumped in the late 1980s, many works began heading for the warehouse. To meet the demand, in 1990 Judson bought an old ball-point pen factory next door, increasing storage space by 25%.
Of all the warehouse's services to banks, repossession is one of the most unpleasant, Mr. Pelham said.
At the uptown restaurant, Judson employees tried to be quiet as the marshal and restaurant owner argued over the repossession. "We become a ham in the sandwich in that situation," Mr. Pelham said.