The Oscar Niemeyer Museum’s ‘Works Under Guard’ exhibition

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Art lovers in Brazil’s southern city of Curitiba have been treated to an unusual sort of show this year. “Works Under Guard”, at the Oscar Niemeyer Museum, is an exhibition of 48 important art pieces seized from allegedly corrupt businessmen who took part in Brazil’s biggest graft scandal, a kickback scheme at state-owned oil company Petrobras.

The works on display, including pieces from the great Brazilian modernist painter Cicero Dias, composer and painter Heitor dos Prazeres and many others, were deposited with the museum because the federal police did not have the facilities to store them properly.

“The museum fulfilled its mission to conserve and house art collections, and also to democratise access to them for visitors,” Juliana Vosnika, director of the museum, wrote in the guide to the exhibition.

The collection seemed designed to confirm the worst prejudices of ordinary Brazilians: that the corrupt are fabulously wealthy and the fabulously wealthy must be corrupt.

Indeed, as Brazil slips into recession and unemployment rises, the scandal and the economic meltdown have made it unfashionable to be filthy rich in Brazil, says Daniela Falcão, editor-in-chief of Vogue Brazil, the style magazine. When Brazil is booming, she says, “it is even OK to spend a lot because you are helping the country to grow. Now, on the other hand, there is so much uncertainty . . . you don’t want to be connected to the elite involved in these corruption schemes.”

In a country in which the wealthiest 10 per cent control 54 per cent of income, it is hard to shock people with displays of ostentatious riches. But in the past year, the lifestyles of Brazil’s A-list have been put under the X-ray like never before — with often surprising results.

The exposés started with Eike Batista, an oil magnate who was Brazil’s richest man until he admitted a couple of years ago that his oil fields were lacking a key ingredient — oil. He was accused of insider trading and a judge ordered a public auction of the belongings of the tycoon and his family. Brazilians watched as police confiscated a collection of luxury cars, yachts and jet-skis from the Batista clan’s many residences. But Batista’s trappings turned out to be modest compared with what was hoarded by those involved in the Petrobras case. One of the company’s former directors, Pedro Barusco, confessed in court statements that he had stashed away $100m solely from the proceeds of corruption — that and another $1m he said he had spent on medical fees and travel.

An untitled work by Cicero Dias from the exhibition

Another Petrobras director, Renato Duque, is accused in documents made available in the federal court of the state of Paraná of accepting art works in exchange for contracts — charges he denies. His colleague, Paulo Roberto Costa, was “given” a new Range Rover Evoque by his partner in the Petrobras scam, black-market money-dealer Alberto Youssef. Police found more than $500,000 in cash in Costa’s home.

Indeed, the Petrobras officials are only the beginning. Politicians too have been accused of living the high life, among them Eduardo Cunha, head of the lower house of congress. A staunch evangelist — his big idea is to have a “heterosexual pride” day — he has been implicated in the Petrobras case and is accused of having secreted millions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. He denies any wrongdoing.

Former president Fernando Collor, who was impeached during his rule in the early 1990s for alleged corruption, is also accused of involvement in the Petrobras scandal by prosecutors. He had a Lamborghini, Ferrari and Porsche briefly confiscated before getting them back under a court order.

These shows of alleged corruption and ostentatious wealth are cramping the style of Brazil’s super-rich when it comes to doing what they do best — spending prolifically, analysts say.

Vogue’s Falcão says the elite are still consuming but doing so more judiciously, investing in high-end jewellery and often offshore. They are keeping their purchases secret, especially the most extravagant. Retailers are having to be smarter to maintain an effective service for clients who don’t want to be seen to be spending extravagantly, Falcão says.

Beyond this, the rich, like everyone else, are worried about losing money in the recession, so they are opting for items that should hold their value. “If you are buying diamonds or emeralds, it will be a piece that will last for generations and be safe because even if the economy goes bananas you will still have this as an asset,” says Falcão.

As for the Oscar Niemeyer Museum in Curitiba, as long as wealth and corruption go together, it seems there will be no shortage of new pieces to display — the museum is preparing to exhibit a new batch of 139 works from the Petrobras investigation.

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