More Than 1,600 Works of Art—Including Major Pieces by Banksy—Were Secretly Shuffled Through Shell Companies, Pandora Papers Reveal

A new report shows how the wealthy exploited the relatively unregulated art market to protect their money. 

Banksy's Girl With Balloon (Pink). Photo: Sotheby's Ltd.

More than 1,600 works of art by some 400 artists were quietly shuffled through shell companies in tax havens according to records from the Pandora Papers, a trove of 11.9 million leaked documents that revealed the offshore accounts of numerous world leaders. 

In a new report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (​​ICIJ), the group that published the Pandora Papers last fall, researchers show the ways in which the wealthy use the relatively unregulated art market to secretly move money. 

London financier Maurizio Fabris, for instance, has used an offshore trust in New Zealand to acquire more than a dozen works by the highly sought-after street artist Banksy since 2009. Among the major he bought are Flower Thrower, Girl with Balloon, and Rude Copper. The latter depicts a police officer giving the middle finger. 

“It’s terribly ironic,” John Zarobell, a San Francisco University professor and author told the ICIJ.  The artist’s work, he explained, “attacks not only authority but the political and economic structures that undergird the art world. But when you become a famous artist, like Banksy has, your work gains lots of value, and then it can become a tool in these kinds of schemes by the ultra wealthy, in order to hide their wealth.”

Through an agreement with a Singapore-based financial service provider called Asiaciti Trust, Fabris was allowed to display the works at his home without paying taxes. He later sold three of the pieces to a London gallery run by Banksy’s former agent—just as Fabris came under investigation for tax fraud in Italy.

As a result of that investigation, Fabris, a former race car driver, was formally charged with tax evasion in 2015. After that, Asiaciti transferred ownership of the Banksy artworks from the Fabris’s trust back to the man himself, and his shell companies in the U.K. and British Virgin Islands were closed. 

Fabris’s lawyer told the ICIJ all his offshore holdings were properly reported, and that he paid taxes in the U.K. 

Other parties included in the ICIJ’s new report include controversial Russian television CEO Konstantin Ernst, members of the powerful Sri Lankan Rajapaksa family, and the Indian auction house Saffronart. Each was shown to have used offshore companies to purchase art tax-free, but none have been accused of illegal activity, according to the Art Newspaper. 

A review of the Pandora Papers previously revealed that the late, disgraced antiquities dealer Douglas Latchford also used offshore trusts to sell looted art.

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