The Russian investigation into Laundromat has been cursory. One investigator admitted his probe into RZB had stalled. Two FSB agents visited their counterparts in Moldova and collected documents. There are suspicions the FSB’s real goal was merely to find out how much investigators knew. In March, Moldova complained that in recent months Russian agents had been harassing Moldovan diplomats arriving in Russia.
Though there are no hard statistics on the amount of laundered money invested in art, law enforcements officials and scholars agree they are seeing more of it. The Basel Institute on Governance, a nonprofit research organization in Switzerland — the site of the world’s premier contemporary and Modern art show — warned last year of the high volume of illegal and suspicious transactions involving art. But regulation has been scattershot and difficult to coordinate internationally.
But while Simpson saw disturbing patterns, he was unable to nail anything down, because he couldn’t get the relevant records from banks and other financial institutions. Schiff posed an interesting question: Simpson didn’t have subpoena power, but the committee did. Who should it subpoena if it wanted to learn more? Simpson laid out a roadmap for Schiff:
We empirically analyze the illicit trade in cultural property and antiques, taking advantage of different reporting incentives between source and destination countries. We thus generate a measure of illicit trafficking in these goods based on the difference between imports recorded in United States' customs data and the (purportedly identical) trade as recorded by customs authorities in exporting countries. We find that this reporting gap is highly correlated with the corruption level of the exporting country as measured by commonly used survey-based indicies, and that this correlation is stronger for artifact-rich countries. As a placebo test, we do not observe any such pattern for U.S. imports of toys from these same exporters. We report similar results for four other Western country markets. Our analysis provides a useful framework for studying trade in illicit goods. Further, our results provide empirical confirmation that survey-based corruption indicies are informative, as they are correlated with an objective measure of illicit activity.
In the tight-knit world of art dealers and mega-buyers, where insider information is the name of the game, Bouvier's case could be prove to be a game changer, as it potentially pits collectors against brokers, putting inherent conflicts of interest in the spotlight. At the same time, Rybolovlev is playing a high-stakes game, as a sophisticated collector and global businessman of his stature is not one who doesn't understand the risks he's taking. His lawyer claims other "victims" of Mr. Bouvier have already approached them, while the embattled King of the free ports believes he will clear his name in a Monaco court. Whatever happens the impact could be permanent.
Having turned the craft of international art smuggling into an art in its own right, Michel Van Rijn was once wanted by authorities all over the world for sneaking valuable pieces of art across sea and land. With millions in the bank, Michel lived the life of a playboy. He owned private planes, enjoyed a harem of beautiful women, and did business with some of the world's most dangerous criminals-many of whom were members of various governments (and probably still are).
Happy with my work, the next time he took me to Armenia. He was smuggling of course, and when we got there we had drinks with the chief of police. There was a big organization bringing in lots of pieces from Moscow and Leningrad. The Russians and the Armenians were like mafia clans. They were very well-organized and working together. From there we took a bunch of art and flew to Beirut-the customs there were in on the game. We paid them off. That was basically the first time I smuggled on a large scale.
Borisovich says London’s Russian oligarchs should not be mistaken for conventional, self-made businessmen. “Their riches come from transactions with the Russian government. They either sold something for a fortune to the state of Russia or they bought something for pennies in some sort of privatisation from the state of Russia. Some of them managed to do both, to buy for pennies and sell for fortunes. Some of them never did any of that and they just worked all their life as government officials and somehow in the process became immensely rich,” he says.
"I think I can be useful," Rappo says Bouvier told her. Rybolovlev "jumped," she says. "He was really very happy." According to her, the oligarch recognized that Bouvier had some of the best art in the world sitting in his Geneva warehouse. Rybolovlev, for his part, says he scarcely remembers his first meeting with Bouvier, and he took the meeting only because Rappo encouraged him to. He found Bouvier "a regular, likable man," different from the stereotypical smooth-talking art dealer. And because Rappo, whom he trusted "totally," had brought them together, Rybolovlev agreed to work with him for, the oligarch claims, a fee of 2 percent—which Bouvier denies, saying that amount was merely for transport and administrative costs.
Briefly: On New Year's Eve 2014, Rybolovlev found himself at the Eden Rock St. Bart's eating with Sandy Heller, a New York art consultant who advises many hedge fund managers. Somewhat obliquely Heller said, "It looks like you bought the Modigliani [we sold]." He was referring to Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion, one of the artist's most famous canvases, painted in 1917. The painting had belonged to Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC Capital Advisors and also one of the richest men in the world.
In one current money-laundering case, United States authorities have accused Malaysian officials and associates in a civil complaint of converting billions of dollars of embezzled public funds into investments like real estate and art. Masterworks by Basquiat, Rothko, Van Gogh and others were purchased, many at Christie’s, according to a complaint filed by federal prosecutors. Later, a Cayman Island company owned by one of the accused launderers took out a $107 million loan from Sotheby’s in 2014 using some of those artworks as collateral, authorities say.
Both Bouvier and Rappo would deny the charges, hire lawyers, and spend the following months telling their stories to the media. Bouvier's defense was simple: Yes, he had charged astronomical markups to his client, but, as he told Vanity Fair, "I did not act as intermediary but as the owner [of the art]. I had a right to a profit; it's the law of busi- ness." (Bouvier refused to answer questions for this article.)
There is no comparable entity in the art market. But were the same type of program instituted in the art market, it would only require that the auction house, dealer or lawyer know the beneficial owner and be able to reveal that information to federal authorities. It would not require the other side of the transaction to learn the seller (or buyer’s) identity.
"To put the mother of your two children in prison just not to give her money—what kind of person is that?" Rappo says. "This is the style of Mr. Rybolovlev, and that's exactly what happened to us. He wants to humiliate people and put such stress on them that they give up." (Rybolovlev brushes all this off and says Elena cannot stand to hear Tania Rappo's name.) I put it to Rappo: Why would Rybolovlev target her and Bouvier if not for the money he says they owe him?
If the BSA is extended to apply to dealers in art and antinquities, FinCEN can expect a robust notice and comment period for the implementing regulations. Further, when proposing such regulations, FinCEN might draw upon some existing AML guidelines for the art trade, including those from two not-for-profit groups — one independent, the other supported by industry. We explore those guidelines in the rest of this post.