Why UniCredit is selling its art

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By:
Dominic O'Neill
Published on:

Italy’s biggest bank is offloading choice bits of its 60,000-strong art collection – in doing so it is going in a different direction to peers like Intesa Sanpaolo.

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Il Guercino's The Prayer in the Garden, one of UniCredit’s art works in its Bologna headquarters. Photo: Alessandro Rugeri

UniCredit has been keeping a relatively low profile in the art world recently, despite having one of biggest bank art collections in the world.

Scattered around the bank’s premises in Italy, Germany and Austria are Old Masters and paintings by big-name European modernists such as Gustav Klimt, Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger. UniCredit is especially known for its collection of work by Germany’s Gerhard Richter, one of the superstars of the contemporary art world.

But for UniCredit chief executive Jean Pierre Mustier – who has publicly swapped the CEO’s private jet for a red-daubed Fiat 500 – the bank brings no special expertise to owning and managing such an important collection. There is also today a mismatch between the austerity that he espouses and these masterpieces in the offices of a bank. They are the unwanted legacy of mergers and chief executives past.

The fact that UniCredit is now selling this art might speak not just to the unique character of its chief executive, but also to the bank’s unique situation, as an internationally oriented Italian bank (its only large local rival, Intesa Sanpaolo, has more of a national champion status).

Social good

Banks nowadays are increasingly aware that they need to do more to manage their art collections for social good, rather than just to adorn the walls of their executive offices. But very few have decided to sell their collections, partly out of fear that such a step would send a message to clients and staff about the financial state of an institution, and partly because of tight restrictions on the export of art in countries like Italy.

Commerzbank, unusually, gave away the best of its collection on long-term loans to museums after selling a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti for a then record $104 million in 2010.

Other banks with similarly sized collections – such as Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and especially Intesa Sanpaolo – have instead opted to open their own museums or exhibitions, dedicated to showing their art to the general public.


What’s important is to set a direction that’s more positive than having important art and sculpture in our offices 
 - Maurizio Beretta

UniCredit, unlike firms such as JPMorgan and UBS, is not usually cited by art world insiders as a bank especially well known for its collection. It is hard to find any public exhibitions with work from its collection since Mustier became CEO in 2016, although in 2017 it did open its historic headquarters in Bologna to the public for the first time. The sixteenth century Palazzo Magnani in Bologna holds just a portion of UniCredit’s 60,000 art works, including local Bolognese Old Masters Guercino and the Carracci brothers.

Now UniCredit hopes to offload the art to help finance its social impact banking projects, which are being extended this year to Germany, Austria and various countries in central and eastern Europe. Last year this scheme approved €73 million in financing to social entrepreneurs and micro-enterprises in Italy, benefitting from a €50 million guarantee from the European Investment Fund (the bank itself has dispersed €48 million).

Direction

“What’s important is to set a direction that’s more positive than having important art and sculpture in our offices,” says Maurizio Beretta, group head of institutional affairs and sustainability at UniCredit, whose office contains a work by Antonio Donghi (an early twentieth century Italian painter). “We think it’s better to use these assets to finance social initiatives,” he says.

So far, details are scant, though the bank expects sales to start later this year. It is a progressive sale with estimated initial proceeds of around €50 million – the implication being that UniCredit aims to sell the bulk of the valuable items in the collection, as far as it can. UniCredit says it will donate some work, although it does not specify which art or to which museums.

It also does not give further hints as to the value of the collection: perhaps because, like other Italian banks, it does not know very well. In 2017, Intesa claimed to be the first bank in Italy to value the core of its collection, about 3,500 pieces, on a fair-value basis. It came up with €270 million for these pieces, booking a capital gain of €207 million, as some works were listed at €1.

UniCredit’s art collection is managed today by its real estate team, but again as with other banks, it is heading more towards the communications department (which Beretta headed until last year).

A small proportion of the proceeds of UniCredit’s art sales will go towards buying new work from less established artists – also something most banks say they are trying to do more of in their art purchases today, although the definition of established varies.

UniCredit is asking a group of refugee artists to make representations of its headquarters, perhaps Milan’s most brash landmark. An exhibition UniCredit is sponsoring alongside the UN in Venice this year, 'Rothko in Lampedusa', will have other art by the refugees and works by artists including Chinese art world superstar Ai Wei Wei.


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