After multiple delays, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller Tenet finally hit select theaters in the U.S. earlier this month, and alongside all the normal elements one expects from a big-budget Nolan film—car chases, international intrigue, shadowy military operations, overcomplicated backstories, and more—there’s something unexpected: a subplot involving a freeport in Oslo.
The film follows a CIA operative, played by John David Washington, who is only ever referred to as “the Protagonist.” His mission is to investigate “inverted” weapons—which can reverse time, to cataclysmic means—that have been developed and deployed using technology from the future. Anonymous players from a time still to come, we find out, are trying to eliminate their ancestors to prevent the world’s end by climate change.
Much of the film is centered around its villain, Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch and arms dealer involved in the war effort of the future. He is the target of the Protagonist’s mission, and an art collector. We learn that his estranged wife Katherine is an art specialist at a London auction house called Shipley’s, and her storyline begins with an admission that she brought a fake Goya drawing to auction. Sator purchased it for $9 million; when he found out that it was counterfeit, he tried to blackmail his wife. In order to secure Katherine as an ally, the Protagonist is tasked with stealing the work from Sator’s Oslo Freeport.
The dialogue around the art sale plot jabs at the opaque dealings of the art industry. “People who’ve amassed fortunes like your husband generally are not OK with being cheated out of any of it,” the Protagonist says of the fake Goya sale. It all feels reminiscent of a 2015 story involving two brothers from Girona, Spain, who tried to sell a fake Goya painting to a Sheikh, who outsmarted them and paid with photocopied cash.
The art subplot is mainly meant to paint Sator as an evil, yacht-based mastermind behind a global catastrophe. Nolan’s characters plainly explain the use of freeports for clients to store their high-value art without being taxed. Sator’s construction company, Rotas, developed the storage facilities; Katherine, the auction maven, brings in the clients. Nolan uses the art-world setting as a hub for Sator’s shady business dealings, who his wife says makes trips four to five times a year to Oslo to view art “and do whatever it is he does” (which one could read as a nod to the global art fair calendar—albeit a pre-pandemic one).
In Tenet, art is used as a valuable asset through which characters can leverage control of one another. In other words, the market serves as a stage for criminal activity. Perhaps Nolan chose Goya because of the artist’s status as a notorious cultural critic and satirist.
Art-world clichés feature as satire elsewhere in the film. The Protagonist and his partner Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, try unsuccessfully to steal the Goya dupe. In one scene, a tour guide leads Pattinson through the freeport’s aisles of valuable artworks. After Neil inquires about their standards of care, the guide tersely replies, “Our clients choose us because we have no priority above their property.” It’s a slight to the luxury art sector—and, moreover, the Western world as a whole—which Nolan suggests favors the rich. In the filmmaker’s view, the care of a rare object (and in this case, a fake one) trumps all else. At another point, Washington’s character brings another Goya fake for Katherine’s appraisal. The Protagonist asks “What’s it worth? What is it in your heart?”—a snipe at how blue-chip art is valued.
Mostly, Sator and his wife come off as art market tropes about blue-chip art experts being in bed with bad actors. At one point, Sator forces Katherine to come to the freeport to evaluate new assets he’s acquired, which we come to find out are illegal weapons. Katherine responds, “This is not my area of expertise.” Her husband reminds her of the “filthy business” through which they’ve accrued their fortune, and her participation makes her culpable regardless of her “area” of expertise.
The film exploits themes that have proliferated through the highest echelons of the commercial art market—commonly traded ideas about anonymous industrialists and vulgar excess. While this is all the stuff of fantasy, it has some basis in truth. Russian oligarchs are a point of fascination within the art world, and some high-profile collectors are eyed leerily by the general public for their displays of wealth. (In July, for example, a report by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations revealed that two Russian oligarchs, the Rotenbergs, subverted U.S. sanctions imposed in 2014 through $18.4 million in art purchases at auction houses and through New York dealers.)
And though Nolan’s film may not be wholly informed when it comes to its critique of the art market, it does manage to find a few interesting things to say about the subject. Midway through, the Goya reappears. Sator serves the drawing to Katherine on a silver plate, claiming he guessed that the heist was about to take place, leading him to remove it from the Oslo storage. “I’ve always had instincts about the future, that’s how I built this life,” he says to her. Consider that a slap at art-world speculators.