Through 1913 and into 1914, J Pierpoint Morgan spared no expense in the construction of an imposing headquarters that might suitably represent his reputation as the era’s pre-eminent financial baron – a lair for the capitalist’s capitalist smack in the heart of Wall Street.
He imported blocks of pink Knoxville marble weighing as much as 35 tons, commissioned a vault with a door weighing another 52, a massive crystal chandelier and panelling of English oak.
Morgan believed 23 Wall Street would be so well-known as the headquarters of JP Morgan & Co – the “House of Morgan” – that he didn’t even bother to order his name inscribed over the facade.
But for the past nine years this imposing monument to America’s most famous banker has stood neglected, its windows dirty and plastered with advertising, and without use save for occasional fashion industry parties or TV shoots. Its ownership is tied to Sam Pa, a jet-setting Hong Kong-based businessman with seven names, links to the Chinese intelligence services and a network of business contacts stretching from Pyongyang to Luanda, whose whereabouts since being detained by Chinese communist party authorities investigating corruption in China’s energy industry are unknown.
If that was not sufficiently rich in symbolism, keys to the 102-year-old, 150,000 sq ft Sam Pa-JP Morgan edifice will soon by handed over to Simon Birch, a 41-year-old Brighton-born artist who plans to fill the space with contemporary art and sculpture based on anti-capitalist themes, he says, “of empires expanding and contracting”.
The exhibition will not be the first time the building has attracted the attention of anti-capitalists: at midday on 16 September 1920, anarchists possibly connected to Galleanists (Italian anarchists) detonated 100lbs of dynamite hidden inside a horsecart that killed 38 people, injured 143 and caused $2m in property damage. Thhe bombing was never conclusively solved though it was, for a time, considered the worst act of terrorism on US soil.
Last summer the exhibit organisers held a champagne fundraiser; guests included Alan Cumming and Tommy Hilfiger. The exhibit, scheduled to open in April and last three months, will not answer longer-term questions over the future of a building that stands opposite the New York stock exchange and adjacent to a gold-ornamented, Trump-themed tower block.
Fourteen years after 9/11, the district is resurgent less as a financial centre than as residential and luxury shopping destination thronging with visitors looking to counter the gloomy experience of the World Trade Center memorials several minutes away by foot.
According to real estate agents, the Morgan building would make an ideal retail location for Apple – there is none at the lower end of the city – marrying one of capitalism’s foremost edifices with the world’s most highly valued firm.
But Pa’s arrest in a Beijing hotel two months ago serves only to deepen the intrigue. Pa purchased the building for $150m in 2008 through China Sonangol, the investment arm of 88 Queensway, an octopus-like organisation described by the US Center for Public Integrity as a “trans-national network of over 60 interlocking companies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean”.
Last week, Sonangol’s US office in Houston directed inquiries to its headquarters in Luanda where the company is primarily involved with shipping Angolan oil to China. The number offered was not in service.
Pa, who also goes by his Cantonese name of Tsui King Wah, as well as Xu Songhua, Sa Muxu, Sam King, Antonio Famtosonghiu Sampo Menezes and Ghiu Ka Leung has proved almost as difficult to track as his business interests are difficult to unravel.
All his life he’s worked in Chinese intelligence, one source told the Financial Times. “Sam is a big player in arms in Africa. Oil, diamonds and weapons go together. Everyone who was in intelligence at that time, they went into business.”
To many, Pa and the Queensway Group have come to symbolise Chinese economic activity in Africa that has surged from $10bn two decades ago to more than $200bn. Key to Queensway’s dealings in Angola, Guinea, Madagascar, Tanzania and, most controversially, Sudan and Zimbabwe, it is Pa who allegedly developed relationships with African leaders during his service as a Chinese intelligence operative and arms dealer.
In a report, The Anatomy of the Resource Curse: Predatory Investment in Africa’s Extractive Industries, published last year by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, US researcher JR Mailey described the Queensway Group as a “prototypical predatory investor” that engaged in deal-making that is “flagrantly unfavourable to the citizens of the host country”.
The report alleged that having allegedly bribed African government officials and engaged in illicit arms trafficking and diamond smuggling, Queensway’s deals in Africa have often had a disastrous impact on governance.
Pa’s arrest is believed to be linked to a corruption inquiry into Su Shulin, governor of Fujian province. Su, the former boss of China’s state-owned oil giant Sinopec, has been accused of helping a relative to secure contracts to build a huge oil depot in China and reflects an ongoing anti-corruption campaign initiated by President Xi Jinping.
Pa’s acquisition of 23 Wall Street is also shrouded in mystery. Sonangol acquired the building in 2008 from Africa-Israel, a firm controlled by Lev Leviev, a Russian-born entrepreneur with ties to diamond mining in Angola, the construction of ultra-orthodox settlements in the West Bank and New York property, including the former New York Times building on 43rd Street.
According to the New York real estate rumour mill, Pa purchased 23 Wall Street as a favour to Leviev or perhaps thought he was acquiring a different Leviev building – the Madison Square Clock Tower – more amenable to development.
Agents for the building rejected a plan to turn the building into a vast nightclub with restaurants, a bowling alley and other entertainments operated by 360 Latitude, a Las Vegas-based entertainment company. Local residents objected to the idea of a giant leisure complex right across the street from where George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States.
Given 23 Wall Street’s history Birch should have a lot of material to play with for his show. When it opens in April viewers will apparently enter into a gallery of portraits of punk rockers from the late 1970s, past videos of bodies suspended in motion, and into a room of airplane parts. Elsewhere, video screens will show Chinese factory workers fighting and the artist crashing his Ferrari.
Catherine Hughes, head of the local Community Board 1, believes Birch’s ambitious art installation could be a step on the path to restoring the building’s lustre. “It’s a beautiful building in a key strategic location so if it can be properly activated that’s something we’d clearly look forward to.”
This article was written by Edward Helmore in New York, for theguardian.com on Saturday 2nd January 2016 12.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010