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.
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.