Law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad say “Hannibal” is just one of thousands of valuable artworks being used by criminals to hide illicit profits and illegally transfer assets around the globe. As other traditional money-laundering techniques have come under closer scrutiny, smugglers, drug traffickers, arms dealers and the like have increasingly turned to the famously opaque art market, officials say.
“If you say, I’m going to go after Putin’s cronies, then the Saudis, the Chinese, everyone else who’s investing here can say: ‘she has a spat with us, then we’re the targets. We’re moving our money’. She has to protect the City because she’s about to undertake what I consider to be one of the most misguided steps any government could take, Brexit, which is to threaten above all the City,” he says.
In fact Trump named Wilbur Ross, the former vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, as his commerce secretary. That bank was involved in deals involving Putin’s inner circle in 2015, and incidentally, Rybolovlev had a 9.9% stake in the bank until 2013, after which he divested for undisclosed reasons. It’s very possible that Ross actually has no role in any of this as former employees say he actually drove Russian oligarchs from the bank over his tenure, and the offshores were only used for a failed bid to build a casino.
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.
Price flexibility in the art world is just one of the many advantages for a certain subset of the criminals — money launderers. Other advantages include portability, lack of a paper trail, anonymity, and no regulations. Artwork is lightweight compared to other valuables, like gold and cash. Artwork is bought and sold with minimal paperwork, unlike real estate. Artwork purchases can be anonymous, unlike everything else.
Perhaps the most interesting thread is Simpson’s suggestion that the Trump Organization could have been used by Russians to launder money—an arrangement that would have both allowed Kremlin-linked figures to scrub cash and would have created possible blackmail material over the now-president, since the Russian government would be aware that a crime had been committed.
Bonhams and Christie’s say that they had done research on their pieces, but were hampered by Italian authorities’ refusal to make the photographic database available to auction houses: “While we have a careful due diligence process in all other respects we have no way, without the co-operation of the Carabinieri, of checking this particular database. This case illustrates why that co-operation would be helpful,” said a spokesperson for Christie’s. As for the Roman statue, it was put on display in a New York art fair last year – but failed to sell. The US authorities are hoping to return it to Italy.
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).
It was, but things changed later when I went to the Jos Plateau in Nigeria. I saw these incredible Nok terracotta heads that they bury in the graves for their ancestors. They were potentially million-dollar pieces and I was there to buy them. But then I met the people-the Jos Plateau is very cold at night so we sat around campfires-and they hardly had anything to eat, yet they sit up all night to protect their ancestor's culture from vultures who want to come and dig and steal and kill to get the terracottas. That touches your heart. You can't deal with those things. You don't want to have people dying for art. It was all just a game, but then I was on top of that hill and suddenly confronted with reality. If that doesn't change you, you aren't a human being.
After that I knew there were a lot of stolen Nok pieces that were going to be exhibited at a gallery in London-all worth around $400,000-sold to some of the wealthiest people in the world. I could've easily made a lot of money for myself by approaching the dealer and saying, "Give me 100 grand to keep my mouth shut about where they came from," and I would've gotten it in a nanosecond. But instead I went to the Nigerian embassy and convinced the ambassador there about these stolen Nok pieces.
Rybolovlev says he heard through the grapevine that Rappo had gotten richer, acquiring apartments in Paris, London, and Monaco during the years he had known her. Her explanation, he says, was that she had come into a windfall thanks to her family's sale of real estate in Bulgaria. Rybolovlev also said she had given money to Bouvier to invest in the Singapore free port (which Rappo denies), and Bouvier had made her a fortune.
The AML Standards for Art Market Operators (“AML Standards”) are set forth by the Basel Institute on Governance, an independent not-for-profit organization. Not surprisingly, the AML Standards adopt a “risk based” approach to establishing measures to mitigate money laundering risks, and further note that “[s]mall businesses may not have the resources to address money-laundering risks in the same way that large auction houses or major dealers and galleries will have, and may have a different risk exposure.” The AML Standards are intended to apply to everone trading in art objects, and intermediaries between buyers and sellers. They also suggest that service industries supprting the trade in art objects that are already subject to AML laws, like financial institutions, should identify their clients and customers in the art trade “as higher risk as long as there are no internationally applicable standards.”