Over the years Bouvier has shifted his core business from art transportation to building and operating vast, secretive high-tech fortresses used for storing not just artworks but cars, wine, coins, and furniture. Such repositories, known as free ports, have existed for centuries, but until quite recently their primary purpose was to hold raw materials in transit—a shipment of soybeans, say. They were found primarily in transit zones, such as airports and canals, and they usually enjoyed one of the benefits of existence at the jurisdictional margins: tax and duty freedom.
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).
At the restaurant Rappo, who speaks eloquent English as well as French, Russian, and her native Bulgarian, chain-smokes throughout the evening, and although she orders champagne, she scarcely touches it, preferring to talk, talk, and talk. Both her husband, a handsome, quiet man, and her lawyer, "Maître Michel," occasionally interrupt, telling her, "Tania, no, don't say that," but clearly Rappo is not a woman who is told what to do.
The looting and illicit export of art treasures is not a new problem. It’s happened whenever there have been armed conflicts during which victorious troops plundered churches, temples and other buildings. Germany carried out massive looting in World War II. By the start of the 21st Century the trade in illicit antiquities had become so huge it was worth billions of dollars each year and was the biggest international crime outside drug and arms trafficking according to The New York Times. When a piece is stolen, the consequence for scholars is tragic, because essential information about the piece – where it was found, what else was with it – is lost forever.
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.
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.