The criminals, led by a well-known Spanish thug nicknamed “Juan the Kid” due to his short stature, gathered in a seedy motel south of Paris. There, acting on shadowy orders from the Chinese triads, they plotted to steal priceless artworks from the Palace of Fontainebleau. It sounds like a saga worthy of a Hollywood film script, but French and Spanish authorities recently foiled this exact stratagem, sweeping in in the wee hours of December 27th—the very day the heist was supposed to occur—to arrest the would-be robbers.
While the suspects remain tight-lipped, authorities are trying to figure out which objects were earmarked for theft at the UNESCO World Heritage Site—and which precise part of the Chinese underworld ordered the contract robbery. The surreal saga, however, has not only recalled previous similar plots—but has highlighted how the art world has provided organised crime groups around the world with fertile ground.
An emerging pattern
It wouldn’t be the first time Chinese art has been targeted in Western museums—or even the first time it’s been taken from Fontainebleau, which houses hundreds of pieces of decorative art ‘liberated’ during the sacking of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in 1860. Thieves made off with a number of valuable Chinese objects, including a replica of the crown of the King of Siam given to Napoleon III, during a robbery in 2015.
The foiled Fontainebleau plot was presaged not only by the palace’s 2015 heist, but also by a number of other audacious European break-ins – all with Chinese artefacts at their heart. In Stockholm in 2010, thieves distracted police with burning cars as they broke into the Chinese Pavilion on the grounds of Swedish royal residence Drottningholm Palace—before escaping by speedboat. Just a few weeks later, robbers abseiled from a glass ceiling in the KODE museum in Bergen, Norway to lift dozens of objects from the China Collection; the museum was revisited on a separate occasion by the thieves looking to retrieve items missed on their first sojourn. It’s thought the same criminal gangs were behind professional hits on Far East collections at the University of Durham and the University of Cambridge.
The similarities are undeniable. In each case, the thefts are meticulously planned, focusing on specific items – art and antiquities from China – while leaving behind other high-value items. Because the stolen artefacts are well documented, they’re hard to sell openly on the international market; nevertheless, most items disappear without a trace.
Secret trades and dirty deals
Stolen items can fall through the cracks so easily thanks to the art world’s overall lack of transparency, which has made the sector a prime vector for organized crime groups to launder money and hide treasures away. As more traditional money-laundering routes come under greater scrutiny, smugglers and traffickers are turning to the art market – a privileged world shrouded in secrecy – to transfer and hide illegal assets.
Without hard statistics to back them up, claims that suspicious art transactions are increasing in volume can’t be verified. But law enforcement groups are certain that it’s a growing trend – especially given that, unlike real estate assets or business profits, regulation is patchy and hard to police on the international stage. While mortgage brokers, casinos and banks have a duty to report suspicious financial activity to the relevant national authorities in many countries, the art market is conspicuously free from any such restrictions. A rolled canvas can easily be transported, and its value adjusted by millions of dollars, without raising an eyebrow.
Yves Bouvier’s freeports—a “black hole” for billions of dollars’ worth of artwork
These backroom deals are further facilitated by the existence of facilities like freeports, which store thousands of pieces of art and other valuable items tax-free in hyper-secure warehouses. These establishments have sprung up in recent years in strategic locations across the globe, including Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg. They’ve become a haven for looted artefacts, alarming policymakers who’ve realised how they offer criminal groups an easy option for stashing treasures out of sight, and out of the reach of investigators.
Last year, after a group of MEPs visited the Luxembourg freeport and were alarmed at what they perceived as “a black hole […] that could easily be used to store goods away from anybody’s control”, the European Parliament called for freeports within the European bloc to be urgently phased out.
The problematic reputation of so-called ‘freeport king’ and founder of the Luxembourg and Singapore facilities, Yves Bouvier, hasn’t exactly reassured anyone. In addition to racking up a long list of legal problems himself—Bouvier’s former client accused the Swiss businessman of defrauding him out of more than $1 billion and he’s also being investigated by Swiss authorities for possible tax evasion—while one business partner for Yves Bouvier, Jean-Marc Peretti, cut his teeth in underground gaming circles and reportedly has close ties to the Corsican mafia. French media has suggested that Bouvier loaned Peretti money which he had gotten through dubious schemes. Moreover, Jean-Marc Peretti carried out some of Yves Bouvier’s most sensitive transactions, including pushing on a consortium of dealers to sell da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi to Bouvier for the lowest possible price. Yves Bouvier denies all charges.
Organised crime cashing in on art
If the specific organised crime group Peretti has been linked to, dubbed the “Petit Bar”, is more known for its involvement in running casinos in Vietnam and air-lifting cannabis from Morocco to Béziers than in trafficking in stolen art, other mafia organisations have made dealing in stolen art one of the cornerstones of their operations.
Two Van Gogh paintings stolen in 2002 from an Amsterdam museum eventually resurfaced in a drug trafficker’s house near Pompeii during a police investigation into the Camorra, the notorious Neapolitan crime syndicate. Perhaps the most high-profile Mafia-connected art theft was a 1990 heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, believed by the FBI to be the work of Italian-American gangsters. The raid resulted in the disappearance of more than a dozen canvases, including important pieces by Vermeer and Rembrandt— none of which have yet been recovered. Nor is this a recent trend; in fact, the Italian crime syndicates have a long history of using paintings as collateral or leverage, dating back to the baffling theft of a Caravaggio from Palermo by the Sicilian Mafiosi in 1969.
The recently foiled Fontainebleau heist indicates that the powerful Chinese triads are now getting involved in the game. While French and Spanish authorities managed to thwart this particular plot, much still needs to be done to stamp out organized crime’s influence in the art world.