Buried treasure, mysterious deaths, looting, forged documents, secretive Swiss bank vaults and shadowy intermediaries. This is not a description of a Dan Brown thriller. It’s real life: the trade in illegally exported antiquities. As prices soar into the millions of dollars for the top pieces, so does the incentive to dig up treasures in Italy, Greece, Turkey and farther afield, pass them to “runners” who will sneak them illegally across borders, store them in a Swiss vault and then quietly slip them into the trade. The players in this murky world can make a fortune, but this is a dangerous game.
← The crate went through customs with a valuation of $100, though it contained Basquiat’s 1982 painting Hannibal (commodities valued under $200 aren’t required to be declared at customs.) The painting had been bought and shipped by Brazilian Banker Edemar cid Ferreira in an elaborate scheme to launder over $50 million that was illegally obtained when Ferreira’s bank, Banco Santos, went bankrupt.
Around the same time, a lawsuit against Sater and Bayrock is gaining steam, accusing the two key Trump partners in evading taxes on $250 million through various real estate projects the trio would work on. Officially, Sater is no longer an advisor to Trump and says the two just sporadically kept in touch, although in 2016 he would max out contributions to Trump’s presidential campaign and praise him in American and Russian media.
Over the last decade, economic forces on a global scale have overrun the art world—visibly to all, in the case of the gargantuan bids casually tossed out at the evening sales, but all but imperceptibly (except to a tiny and in-the-know elite) in other areas—and no one has been more at the center of it, or better epitomized its drive for concealment, than the canny Bouvier. In Switzerland a business owned by Bouvier's family, Natural Le Coultre, is one of the country's oldest transporters of goods, formerly of all kinds but since the 2000s of fine art exclusively. The shift in strategy was not coincidental. As the Economist and others have pointed out, "collectibles [such as art] have outperformed stocks over the past decade," aided in part by the world's string of financial crises. In fact, for some ultra-wealthy individuals art has become the asset of choice, for not only does a Modigliani nude hold or increase its value, it is an easy asset to move or hide.
This would all just be face-palm silliness on the Times’s part, a reflection of its editorial disconnect between the culture pages and the business staff, if the story didn’t also glide over the real point of what is going on here. The best protected transactions in the art market are those that pass through the auction houses because those firms do the KYC due diligence that squelch money laundering. Auction houses have compliance staff and are easily monitored by the law enforcement which doesn’t crack down on large private transactions that take place through lawyers or dealers. The Times admits this when they point out that Jho Low passed KYC diligence before it was revealed that he was involved in the 1MDB transactions. After it was revealed, he is no longer able to access art markets through the auction houses.
Stories of art and money laundering tend to be media friendly, and often involve the wealthy behaving poorly. In one notorious case, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) seized, via a civil forfeiture action, Jean Michel Basquiat’s 1981 painting, Hannibal. This work — later returned to Brazil by the DOJ — had been smuggled into the U.S. by Edemar Cid Ferreira, a former Brazilian banker who was convicted of money laundering and other offenses, and who allegedly converted some of his laundered proceeds into a significant art collection. According to the DOJ, although Hannibal had been appraised at a value of $8 million, it had been smuggled by Ferreira into the U.S. from Brazil, via the Netherlands, with false shipping invoices stating that the contents of the shipment were worth $100. Other stories provide less genteel tales of drug cartels, terrorist organizations and other criminal syndicates financing themselves through systemic looting and the illicit antiquities trade.