“I've felt all along in the Russia investigation that the most important issues were those that had the potential of exerting a continuing influence over the administration and over U.S. policy,” Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me Friday. “And if the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization, the Russians would know it, the president would know it, and that could be very powerful leverage.”
While the US art market remains relatively unregulated, organizations across the globe are taking steps to hold dealers accountable for reporting illegal activity. In February of 2013, the European Commission passed ordinances that require European galleries to report sales above 7,500 euros paid in cash, as well as file suspicious-transaction reports. And in the beginning of this year, a forum was held at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in which economist Nouriel Roubini, among others, spoke on the art market’s susceptibility to laundering and other economic crimes like tax avoidance and evasion. “Anybody can walk into a gallery and spend half a million dollars and nobody is going to ask any questions," said Roubini according to Swiss Info.
The United States similarly requires all cash transactions of $10,000 or more to be reported. Still, laundering involving art tends to be handled case by case. Federal prosecutors, who usually discover art-related laundering through suspicious banking activity or illegal transport across borders, have worked closely with other countries and aggressively used their powers under civil law to confiscate art that they can establish is linked to a crime, even in the absence of a criminal conviction.
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.
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.)
This painting, known as “Hannibal” after a word scribbled on its surface, was brought into the United States in 2007 as part of a Brazilian embezzler’s elaborate effort to launder money, the authorities say. It was later seized at a Manhattan warehouse by federal investigators who are now preparing to return it to Brazil at the behest of law enforcement officials there.
Consistent with general AML principles, the AML Standards stress that beneficial ownership may be obscured behind multiple layers of intermediaries, such as shell companies or offshore companies involving trusts. The AML Standards further provide a list of possible red flags for identifying increased risks of money laundering presented by a client that:
In March 2014, Bonhams withdrew a 2,000-year old Assyrian stele estimated at £600,000-£800,000 ($1m-$1.3m) and which was slated for auction on 3 April. The broken stone slab depicting a praying king – and containing a curse in cuneiform which would fall on anyone removing it from its site – was suspected of being looted from eastern Syria at an unknown date. The top half of the slab has been in the British Museum since the late 19th Century. Bonhams says that its piece was withdrawn for “further study”.
It is a very pretentious title, but yeah I was a big-time smuggler. I was very ambitious. It all started to get serious when I went to Russia after Beirut. In Russia the art smugglers all worked together so that they could have their claws in many different countries overseas. So if you were "in the game" and a promising prospect like I probably was and had contacts with one clan, you could have contacts with all the clans. I was involved in a big way because I knew all the people and could reach out to them. I could get to the countries behind the iron curtain. I was also dealing with VIPs. Don't think this was some kind of scumbag organization-we were dealing with people who were very high up on the political ladder. All you had to do was make sure everybody had his cut.
And in response to Beijing’s strict capital controls which make it illegal for an individual move more than $50,000 out of China per year, wealthy folks from China are turning increasingly to smuggling art out of the country instead. "Items can be bought and sold relatively anonymously, and even when a transaction occurs, complex ownership schemes -- many with a degree of secrecy attached -- are widespread," Paul Tehan of TrackArt, a Hong Kong-based art risk consultancy, told CNN. According to Tehan, senior managers of an art shipping company based in China were arrested for allegedly forging the value of imported art in order to help buyers avoid paying millions in duties.
In the end, maybe this guide was never intended for amoral businessmen in the first place (unless we’ve sorely misjudged our readership!) Maybe this it's more useful to the emerging artists who look for validation (read: dollar signs) in a competitive market. Maybe the artist’s secret to success is appealing to the corrupt and becoming an accomplice to white collar crime (but hopefully not). Are economic criminals the driving force of the art economy? Probably not, but what we do know for certain is that art isn’t only valuable as the evidence of creative genius. It is, to many, a vault.
According to former art consultant Beth Fiore, people don’t normally buy art with cash in the US; “Cash payments for art happen in Russia [and the] Middle East” more often. So if you’re keeping your fortune under your mattress and don’t live in either of those places, you’ll need to get your money into a bank account without alerting the authorities. One way to do that is by smurfing. Despite the mental image of a blue cartoon character riding a surfboard that you may have conjured, smurfing means depositing money into a bank account or several bank accounts by breaking it up in to many small amounts that are deposited at different times, by different people. US banks must report any deposits over $10,000 to the IRS, so in order to stay sneaky, you’ll need to make a series of deposits that are less than that amount. You can hire “smurfs” to help you, who are often ordinary people willing to make an extra buck by opening up a joint bank account in their name, that you or your company has access to, and depositing money into it every day.
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.
“Before we looked into the allegations that Trump campaign people were surreptitiously meeting with the Russians it was only an allegation, but it proved to be all too true,” Schiff said. “Before we looked into allegations that Mike Flynn was having secret communications with the Russians and that the Trump transition might be seeking to undermine the sanctions imposed on Russia over its interference to help the Trump campaign, that was only an allegation, but that proved to be true. There's simply no way to either verify or be able to dismiss these serious allegations without looking into them.”
The 2,200 photographs by masters like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Edward Steichen — more than could fit into an 18-wheeler — were paid for, court papers say, with some of the $78 million that the authorities say Mr. Rivkin got from defrauding oil companies like Shell, Exxon, and Mobil. Mr. Rivkin, who has not been charged with any crimes, was last thought to be in Spain and had arranged to have the photos shipped there.
The Toulouse-Lautrec work, “Au Lit: Le Baiser,” consigned for sale at Sotheby’s in London in 2015, depicts two women embracing on a bed. The Swiss dealer who brought the work to Sotheby’s, Yves Bouvier, signed the standard paperwork surrounding such a sale, which requires the consignor to indicate he or she either owns the painting or is authorized to sell it. After the sale, he was given the proceeds.
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The King free ports, as the Swiss media have dubbed him, Bouvier was embroiled in a similar legal scandal in 2008, when he was connected to a group that tricked an aging collector into selling a piece by Russian-born French artist Chaim Soutine that was then flipped to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. A suite filed by the heirs of Canadian Lorette Jolles Shefner claims she was misled into selling Piece of Beef for $1 million in the Spring of 2004 by two art experts who, a few months later, sold it to the National Gallery for nearly twice the price. Bouvier was "acting in concert [with the experts] to disguise the true ownership" of works of art as part of the fraudulent scheme, court documents revealed.
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.
The billionaire, who is only 48, has in his lifetime faced down murder attempts, a year's imprisonment in Russia, a divorce ("the world's most expensive") so nasty it involved the arrest of his now ex-wife, and now is embroiled in the art scandal of the year, in which he claims he was duped for well over $1 billion by intermediaries he trusted. This is the case that's riding towards trial in Monte Carlo and in which he's been accused of evidence manipulation. (He denies this.)
He told Swiss publication Le Temps that Rybolovlev owes his company “tens of millions of euros,” while claiming that the oligarch set him up after failing to cough up the cash for Rothko’s No. 6 – Violet, Green, and Red. “[Rybolovlev] couldn’t pay the balance of the last painting he bought from my company, the most beautiful Rothko in the world.” Invited by the buyer to chat, Bouvier “fell into an ambush” as he was detained and handcuffed by eight police officers.
E was established in the international art market, as well as the black market at the time. He must have seen some potential in me. Obviously you had to take risks in the art smuggling world, and he probably saw me as somebody who would take them, which was indeed true. I had a Dutch passport as well, which I'm sure didn't hurt. So E wanted me to take these stolen antique byzantine oil lamps and crucifixes back with me to Holland. I did, and sold them for top dollar to private collectors in Europe.
Still swirling around the market are persistent rumours that there is even more to the treasure than the known 14 pieces. Archaeologists claim that such finds always include spoons and coins, which were missing when the pieces started coming onto the market. Many believe they are still languishing in Swiss bank vaults, with the owner(s) waiting for the provenance issues to be cleared up entirely. It is to be ardently hoped that one day the whole hoard, in all its magnificence, will be returned to Hungary to be displayed together once again.
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.
“And this doesn’t just apply to the Russians. This is a general cultural thing whereby anyone with money is encouraged to come here. You can effectively buy residency. You’ve got non-dom status, which is very attractive, you’ve got the anonymous companies where beneficial ownership remains hidden, so to this day we have around 100,000 properties in this country whose owners are unknown.”
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But his suspicion was not triggered until Bouvier came to Rybolovlev in 2013 and 2014 to shop two paintings, first Salvator Mundi, a recently discovered Leonardo for which he wanted $127 million, and then No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), a prized Rothko for which he requested $140 million. Rybolovlev told Bouvier that the family trusts would pay for the Rothko only in installments while Bouvier sold other works, including a Modigliani sculpture Rybolovlev had owned since 2012. Bouvier seemed to have trouble finding a buyer for the Modigliani—or "anything!" Rybolovlev says.
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.
Finally, he also failed to vet his partner in Trump Scion hotel opening soon in Dallas, who has deep ties in money laundering from Kazakhstan and Russia, and opened two offshores in Cyprus in 2008, which, again, is the favorite destination for Russian oligarchs’ exported cash. (The Scion deal ultimately fell apart due to public opposition to the project.)
Francis Morland was one of Britain’s most talented young artists, a contemporary of David Hockney and Peter Blake and a leading member of the 1960s “New Generation” movement. At the same time he lived an even more remarkable secret life as the biggest drug trafficker in the UK. He stuffed his abstract sculptures full of Lebanese cannabis to ship to the lucrative American market, moved yachtloads of Moroccan hashish to Europe, and years before Howard Marks, became the country’s first recognised drug baron.
where Rybolovlev was informed that the Kremlin was reopening a potentially bankrupting investigation into the collapse of a mine belonging to Uralkali. Understanding the government's interest in his company and that his days of owning it were numbered, Rybolovlev cashed out, leaving his estimated net worth somewhere between $8 billion and $13 billion. He then focused on trolling the world for other investments. In 2010 he moved to Monaco, his trusts buying La Belle Epoque. His trusts also bought a majority stake in the AS Monaco soccer team in 2011. And in 2012 a broker recommended by Rappo sold his trusts the penthouse at 15 Central Park West. Rybolovlev says that Rappo called him as the deal was closing. "I've been offered a commission of $100,000," she told him. "Would you mind if I accepted?"
To sum up, the Times muddles the very different issues of ensuring the integrity of works of art—the authenticity question—which is real and requires an entity that can work with owners who want to maintain their anonymity for legitimate reasons with the issue of beneficial ownership—which is less pressing with art because it is relatively rare and covered by the parallel system of KYC run by the banks the auction houses rely upon to vouch for their clients’ ability to afford the works they want to buy.
Bouvier is accused of fraud and complicity with money laundering along with an accomplice, Tania Rappo, and a third person who hasn’t been immediately identified according to Monaco General Prosecutor Jean-Pierre Dreno, who didn’t respond to Forbes’ requests for comment. The embattled Swiss is out on bail, set at €10 million and to be paid in three installments, and is ready for war.
Let’s get back to the real estate pilot program that lies at the heart of the Times’s confusion. That federal program, which may or may not be continued, relies upon mortgage title insurance companies to report to authorities the ultimate beneficial owner of any vehicle used to buy or sell very valuable real estate. It does not require the seller to reveal the beneficial owner to the buyer or vice versa.
Around 2003 the Rybolovlevs decided to build an art collection—"the best in the world," Dmitry has been quoted as saying. They had recently moved into a house with light fixtures for art displays, and with the help of Rappo they were making inroads among a Western European elite that spent its considerable wealth on art. Rybolovlev soon settled on his first acquisition: Le Grand Cirque, one of Marc Chagall's many beloved circus paintings. (The previous owner of the house, who had left the fixtures, owned a Chagall.) He consulted several dealers, and the best price was $8 million, according to Rappo. However, she came up with a way to eliminate the dealers and buy directly from Le Grand Cirque's owner, lowering the price by more than $2 million—and, pivotally, bringing Rybolovlev into contact with Yves Bouvier.
The anonymity of buyers is also a huge advantage for criminals. Who hasn’t seen the images of an art auction for a famous painting at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, where brokers are on the phone with mysterious clients? Art market operators generally refuse to disclose the identities of their clients under the guise of “protecting the integrity of the transactions.”
Look, I've been shot at on three separate occasions, I've had guns on my head, I've had police chasing me... To survive I have been a chameleon. As you know, I speak many languages. Also, I'm not attached to anything. It's like living near a fault line-if you hear a noise, pack your things and get the fuck out of there. Don't become too accustomed to anything. I can sleep like a baby on a little field bed.
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.
← 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.