The insider

Former art smuggling kingpin Michel van Rijn is less than impressed with police forces’ efforts to crack down on the black market for Iraqi antiquities.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  December 18, 2005

|~|nieuwevoorkant-200.jpg|~|Van Rijn: “They should go and hunt the corporates.”|~|Former art smuggling kingpin Michel van Rijn is less than impressed with police forces’ efforts to crack down on the black market for Iraqi antiquities. Michel Van Rijn is well versed in the dark arts of antiquity trading, as well as the riches that can be made from them. Claimed by some to have once been responsible for 90% of international art smuggling, the Dutchman admits to having made millions from less than legal activities — and to having lost millions as well. But now he is helping to catch those involved in the trade, rather than profit from it, Van Rijn is concerned at the stuttering progress authorities have made in retrieving Iraq’s treasures. “They are looking in the wrong direction,” he says, cooking breakfast for his family in his London home. “They have no idea of reality. They are up against very well organised looters with outlets in Switzerland, the US, France and England. So they need people who know the mechanics of the black market and how to fight it. They need people to whisper in their ear and tell them where to look.” This is the very service van Rijn has claimed he used to provide to UK police forces, to gain protection for his own business. In his book, Hot Art Cold Cash, he confesses spiriting icons out of various countries before selling them on — but also says Scotland Yard used to turn a blind eye to his deals, in return for information. Now, however, he’s working to expose museums and dealers who purchase items illegally, and is unimpressed with the lack of arrests authorities have made. “Have you heard of Interpol seizing any piece from Iraq? No, neither have I. They have the occasional person who grasses but they are lost. And it’s clear they are lost because there are no records of big seizures.” Joseph Braude — the Iraqi economic analyst who famously got rumbled at US customs two years ago with some less-than-priceless seals in his luggage — is about the highest profile arrest since the looting began, shortly after the coalition’s invasion in 2003. The trouble, van Rijn says, is he’s about as far up the food chain investigators have got. “The Braude seals were probably worth a couple of thousand dollars altogether,” he says. “But there is at least one collector in New York who has organised a complete system of looting archaeological sites in Iraq. He has thousands of pieces in his collection. If you compare the Braude seals against everything that’s been taken from Iraq, it becomes a comedy.” Nor is the former smuggling kingpin impressed with Braude himself. “At least steal a piece with balls. Don’t come out of Iraq with some **** seals which you stumble over by accident. I would be ashamed if I got caught with a couple of pieces like that.” Judging by the amount of dealers making a killing from looted items in the capitals of Europe and the US, the Dutchman believes that authorities should make a show of targeting the industry’s big players. “They could seize material in the galleries and really demonstrate that they are willing to go the extra mile, not wait at the border to see if something falls in their lap. They should go and hunt the corporates – they aren’t now.” The huge number of archaeological sites in Iraq, and the poor state of archaeological records, has also made it much easier for dealers to sell stolen artefacts, van Rijn says. “I know how their provenance machine works. Ninety percent of antiquities looted are recycled with credible provenance because there is no system that takes this provenance apart – you run it by the Art Loss Register and that’s it. If the records are destroyed noone knows they ever existed, so you have done your due diligence and you are free to sell it. And that’s what’s not being targeted. The records were completely lost and destroyed so whatever was there as a record is gone.” Most of the items that are stolen are smuggled through Iran into the UAE, and onto the West, van Rijn says: “If you look at what is out there in London, in the Mayfair triangle where the major galleries are, you would cry. It’s very sad, because these historical pieces are lost — they are taken out of circulation in a country where they make the puzzle complete, and are instead put in a showcase in Madison Avenue or Mayfair. “There is an ocean of looted material coming from Iraq on a daily basis into the black market in London. This is the central point from where it is sold on.”||**||

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