The Gilgamesh Quintet contains the five episodes of The Gilgamesh Project serialised in 2020 and 2021. The episodes are also available as separate books here on Obooko.
Excerpt from Part 1, The Codex:
SIMMO HAD CHECKED OUT THE EXACT location on Google maps and driving a rented car he found the Ports Francs et Entrepôts de Genève complex without difficulty. It was much larger than he had expected, consisting of four large buildings on the corner of Route des Jeunes and Route de Grand Lancy. The main building was a modern office style structure five stories high on Grand Lancy, behind was nondescript windowless building that looked more like a multiplex cinema than a warehouse. To the right of the main office was a long low two storey building behind which was another larger off-white warehouse that extended nearly half-a-kilometre down Route des Jeunes. The site was situated by a railway sidings about four kilometres southwest of downtown Geneva.
The Freeport was principally owned by the Swiss government with a minority holding held by a group of art dealers, collectors, freight forwarders and mysterious offshore companies.
There was not much about the buildings that said they contained the world’s greatest private collection of art treasures. A chain link fencing topped by razor wire separated the site from the outside road, not as forbidding as Simmo had been expecting, with the kind of access gates and security checkpoints that could be found at any international airport or government building.
Once inside, he, like the Freeport’s other clients, discovered 24-hour protected areas, CCTV cameras, biometric sensors, secure lifts, heavy metal doors, and in addition a sophisticated air-conditioning system that controlled the building's temperatures and humidity so as to conserve the stored treasures in perfect condition.
The vast warehouses were composed of endless identical corridors with locked store rooms on either side. Behind the heavy doors were metal racks on which were carefully stacked wooden cases of all shapes and sizes. They contained paintings, statues, furniture, books and other treasures deposited for safe keeping by rich collectors and investors living in New York, London, Paris or Tokyo, far from the eyes of fiscal authorities and other parties interested in their wealth. Some said they also hid works of art seized by the Nazis from Jewish families, treasures looted from archaeological sites, valuable cultural objects stolen from war torn Middle Eastern countries, and pre-Columbian artefacts smuggled out of Mesoamerica.
It was like a vast bank vault where wealth was deposited for safe keeping—commodities to be traded for a profit at a propitious moment, to protect the owners from the vagaries of currencies and the volatility of stock markets. Art had become a safe haven asset which in addition could be safely hidden from tax authorities, covetous families and ex-wives.
The rich could store anything from gold bars to rare wines, collector’s cars and art treasures in the Freeport. In addition they could hire the services of experts and take advantage of specialised showrooms designed to display works for sale or organise small private events in congenial surroundings far from the prying eyes of the media.
In all more than a million valuable objects, besides countless bottles of rare wines, were stored in one of the most secure places on Earth, the most precious behind massive steel doors that had nothing to envy of the vaults of the Bank of England in the City of London.
At the reception Simmo presented himself to the hostess and five minutes later was met by a customer relations assistant, Jean-Louis Favre, who asked for his passport, account references and inventory numbers. Simmo obliged and announced he would like to inspect the objects stored on behalf of his company. A mere formality as the objects stored in the Freeport’s warehouses were the property of its customers whose only obligation was to declare the nature of the stored items, but not their value.
Simmo was led to a steel door where entry was controlled by an access code and a key. Favre punched in the code and unlocked the door, inside, the storage area was lined with metal racks on which were stacked wooden cases of various sizes. He was pointed to a narrow space not more than about 60 centimetres wide and one metre deep on which lay one small lonely packing case marked ‘Fragile’.
‘I’ll have a storeman take it to a viewing room.’
‘Good,’ replied Simmo avoiding small talk. He was used to bank strong rooms and assumed the same polite distance was de rigueur in the Freeport and was expected by the personnel.
The aproned storeman carefully placed the case onto a rubber wheeled trolley and the assistant led the way back to the corridor and to a rather plain viewing room where the case was placed on a table.
‘Shall I have it opened Mr Simmonds?’
The storeman produced a screwdriver and expertly removed six screws, then stepped back without opening the lid.
‘We’ll leave you now sir. If you wish you may take anything you need with you,’ Favre informed him.
‘This is not a customs controlled area, by the way. Our records show Swiss VAT has been paid on this item, a 19th century facsimile, according to the declaration,’ Favre said looking into the folder he was carrying.
Simmo nodded and thanked him.
‘We have import and due diligence declarations on our files, the latter in good faith, these apply to persons domiciled abroad and to companies having their registered office abroad. The stated purpose is I believe reselling the property for the company's or a third party’s account.’
Simmo nodded again.
‘I’m sorry to say our laws have become more complicated, but they are still much more favourable to collectors and art dealers compared to our friends across the border,’ Favre said nodding in what Simmo assumed was the direction of France.
Simmo made a sign of approval and forced a smile.
‘Just press on the button when you’re finished,’ Favre concluded pointing to a buzzer on the wall near the door.
Once the door was closed, Simmo gingerly lifted the lid of the small crate. Inside was a darkly polished wood box with a silver clasp. He took it out and opened it. Inside, laying on a red velvet lining, was an ancient very worn leather bound book. He opened it and turned the thick pages, they were full of what were evidently hand drawn images, fine images, mostly of plants, some coloured some not, certain depicted people, animals and buildings as well as what appeared to be descriptions in old Spanish and glyphs.
Simmo then opened his briefcase, removed the cash contained in the large envelope, stuffed the banknotes into the zippered side pocket, then carefully slipped the ancient book into the thick manila envelope, put it into the briefcase, replaced the box back in the wooden crate, then pressed on the buzzer.