How I Became One of the Most Successful Art Smugglers in the World
Oct 12 2012
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).
Art smuggling has been his racket since he was 20 years old. Dealing with upper class gangsters and supposedly legitimate art dealers, he’s been shot, extradited, jailed, hunted by MI6 and Interpol, and received photos of his children in the mail by way of a very unsettling threat from his enemies.
He hasn’t given many interviews over the past six years, but I managed to track him down for a chat. After learning I did a bit of unlicensed boxing before becoming a journalist, Michel took a liking to me, as he is a fighter himself. He once had so many contracts on his head that Scotland Yard detectives allegedly placed bets on how long he had left to live before he was murdered by a hitman.
Well built, bearded and rugged, Michel greeted me, took a drag of his cigarette, and agreed to speak about the lucrative world of art smuggling and how he became the kingpin of it.
VICE: Art smuggling doesn’t seem like a very easy thing to get into. How did you first get involved?
Michel: Well, by the time I was 15 I had been kicked out of seven schools. I must have been ADHD or whatever, because I fucking hated school and was always looking to start something for myself. So I began importing cheap hippie coats from Istanbul. They were basically sheepskins turned inside out with some sleeves on them. I began selling them in this hashish bar in Holland. They sold like fucking hotcakes. So I was going up and down between Istanbul and Holland quite a lot. Business was going well, and I was eventually approached in Istanbul by a man named E.
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.
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.
What were you smuggling?
Fabergé icons. There were crates and crates and crates of them. I saw them being loaded onto the plane as I was sitting inside, only half believing that it was happening like this. You see your own luggage going onto the plane, followed by three tremendous crates filled with stolen art.
Some have called you the world’s most successful art smuggler. That’s a big title. What does it take to get to that level?
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.
I remember having dinners with VIPs and there’d be a hooker under the table. You’d have to try to keep your face straight while she crawled around giving all the blokes blowjobs. If you couldn’t keep your face straight while she was sucking you off you had to pay the bill. [laughs]
I also learned to drink in Russia, because if you didn’t drink with them they didn’t trust you. So I learned to buy the icons like this [holds a hand over one of his eyes to show how drunk he was]. I really learned the basics there. The Russians are very educated. I had a great time, which made me forget that this was my university. This was the first time I learned about big smuggling. There was a black market and I became an outlet who had the possibilities to market everything in the West.
Who were you selling the smuggled art to?
Well, you would plant things at auctions. I had a gallery and there were straightforward buyers in the market who you could be a middleman to. The profit was tremendous.
Were the people you sold to aware that it was smuggled art they were dealing with?
Oh fuck yes! Look, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but the art market is a billion-dollar industry. If it [smuggling] is not tolerated on certain levels, the banks would never reach their peaks. I had people on my payroll at customs… it was barely even necessary to smuggle because you could bring it in almost officially so long as you pay a little bit to the right people.
What’s the most expensive piece you ever smuggled?
I’m not going to bullshit you. Single shipments from Russia were between one and three million, which in the 60s was a lot of money. And these were regular trips—twice a month. It was raining money so I made my base in Beirut. Moneywise Beirut was a free banking market, so you could exchange a million dollars completely open on the square and no one would ask any questions. Of course you had to play the cat and mouse game with Interpol.
How did you manage to get away from them so many times?
You always have to be a step ahead of them. Most of them you could pay off, but some you couldn’t. I was cocky. I would show off in their faces sometimes. It was stupidity, but I saw the news of my smuggling in the papers and I liked it, it showed them I could still do it even though they were after me. Also I’d travel on fake passports and change my appearance. Instead of blue eyes I’d change them to brown with contacts, I’d dye my hair blonde… all those corny tricks. At that time they worked.
Eventually you began working with the police though. What made you flip?
Well, I’d been on the run and was eventually arrested at my villa in Marbella.I knew one of the Italian godfathers of the mafia who also has a villa there. We are great friends. So within ten minutes of being arrested, his counsellor was in my cell. He said, “Felice cannot come but he sent you his kind regards,” so then I was sent to Madrid where I dined with a very important member of the police. He arranged for me to go to prison there instead of being extradited to France where they were really after me. I had the best time of my life in jail [in Madrid]. I had the guarantee I was coming out in a year and I bought a cell phone from one of the ETA boys in there. It was like that movie Goodfellas. I had my own kitchen, my own shower, and every day I could bribe one of the guards to go to the market—it was fantastic.
Sounds like a blast.
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.
After that I knew there were a lot of stolen Nok pieces that were going to be exhibited at a gallery in London—all worth around $400,000—sold to some of the wealthiest people in the world. I could’ve easily made a lot of money for myself by approaching the dealer and saying, “Give me 100 grand to keep my mouth shut about where they came from,” and I would’ve gotten it in a nanosecond. But instead I went to the Nigerian embassy and convinced the ambassador there about these stolen Nok pieces.
We went with the police and about 20 Nigerians into the gallery the day before the opening. There were all of these fucking posh people sipping champagne, and in we came to shut it down. You should’ve seen their fucking jaws! I made a statement: “Don’t touch the heritage of these people!” And it’s not that I was a white knight—not at all. But I began to come across certain things that I just couldn’t step over.
When you flipped several contracts were put on your head. How did you survive with a bunch of hitmen after you?
I always faced my problems. You have to show some balls. Funnily enough, a lot of these hitmen, if they are cut from the right cloth, will come to you with a certain respect if you don’t hide. When the Yugoslavian mafia were going to kidnap my father and brother for trying to set a sting operation against them, I had to come back to Amsterdam to face it. I said, “OK, come along. If you’re going to kill me, kill me. If you want my money, go fuck yourself.” That’s the language they speak. I was standing with my bodyguards on the terrace in Amsterdam and this car flew past and they started shooting at me. A bullet went straight through my leg.
Ouch, what was that like?
Just a scratch. [laughs]
To be honest, I’m surprised you’re still alive.
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.
A movie of Michel’s life, written and directed by sub-culture specialist King Adz and co-produced by ex-CIA agent Bob Baer is now in the works. Called The Iconoclast, it will be like Gomorra set in the Louvre, with a bearded Tom Hardy playing Michel Van Rijn (or so rumor has it).
Want more true stories from people with balls bigger than yours?
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