Geopolitics

How Mafia Money Helps Drive The Global Art Market

Valuable pieces of art have a special appeal to people in organized crime, both as trophies — conveying power and prestige — and as a means to launder ill-gained earnings.

'The global art market is worth between 58 and 60 billion euros.'
"The global art market is worth between 58 and 60 billion euros."
Maria Berlinguer

ROME — Gioacchino Campolo, Italy's video poker king, loved art. Among the 300 million euros worth of goods confiscated from him were about 100 very valuable works of art: paintings by Salvador Dali, Giorgio Morandi, Renato Guttuso, Mattia Petri, and Giorgio de Chirico.

Collections in the tens of millions of euros were also confiscated from: Nicola Schiavone, son of Franceso Schiavone, boss of the Casalesi clan within the Naples-based Camorra crime syndicate; and from Gianfranco Becchina, art dealer to Matteo Messina Denaro, boss of Sicily's Cosa Nostra.

Let's not, of course, forget the two Van Gogh oil paintings — Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen — which were stolen in 2002 from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and later found by Italian financial crime unit officers in Castellamare di Stabia, Naples, in a cottage linked to drug trafficking kingpin Raffaele Imperiale.

And then there are the "Ndrangheta investments in 17th-Century paintings in Lombardy, and the collections of Gennaro Mokbel and Massimo Carminati, active figures on the piazza of Rome, at the center of the must-see documentary Follow the Paintings by Francesca Sironi, Alberto Gottardo and Paolo Fantauzzi.

Are criminals and mafia bosses really this passionate about art? Hard to imagine. More likely it's a sign of just how much the art market has become a phenomenal money laundering and investment tool for organized crime. It's a sector that allows dirty money to be hidden, safe and sound, with a guaranteed protection against devaluation over time.

And this isn't just about laundering. Artwork offers the certainty of an investment that won't have inflationary repercussions, and with a guaranteed return to boot, provided the money is invested in masterpieces destined to securely maintain their value over time.

Van Gogh's oil painting View of the Sea at Scheveningen which was stolen in 2002 — Photo: BuyEnlarge/ZumaPress

The global art market is worth between 58 and 60 billion euros. It's a worldwide boom that doubled in size in the last 10 years, and which shows no sign of imploding. And not just thanks to those evergreen works, the masterpieces. It's also due to the exponential rise in prices for works by skyrocketing young artists, pieces that can in some cases top $100 million. All anomalies, according to experts in the sector.

In the past decade, galleries and auction houses have beat record after record, succeeding in placing both masterpieces and works by artists launched from semi-anonymity to worldwide commercial success.

It's a sector that has benefited from an absolute lack of regulation.

But not all that glitters is gold, because passionate collectors aren't the only ones driving the market's wild expansion. Also fueling the frenzy is the ease with which mob interests have so far been able to use this commercial bubble to recycle illicit funds. We're talking about a sector, in other words, that has benefited from an absolute lack of regulation.

"It's a flow of cash coming above all from the drug trade," explains Gen. Allesandro Barbera, commander of Scico, the central investigative service on organized crime of the Guardia di Finanza.

Roughly 18 billion euros (or 1% of Italy's GDP) is the colossal value of real estate and goods confiscated by the Italian financial authorities from criminals between 2015 and 2019. Seizures that confirm the importance of what is seen as a strategic choice of the mob to invest in safe-haven assets: principally diamonds, precious metals, paintings and archeological finds.

These treasures aren't all stolen. Many are acquired legally on the art market, above all at auction.

"The mafia enterprise moves indiscriminately between the two words, legal and illegal, which makes it particularly tricky," Barbera explains. "For the clans, safe-haven assets like works of art are desirable because they are convenient. It's a business with branches all over the world, very difficult to reconstruct. We find ourselves constantly facing a two-faced Janus, and it requires ever more sophisticated investigative techniques to find where the illicit funds are hiding, and to map out all the money transfers."

Barbera adds: "When you find yourself facing a mafia organization that moves in the legal art market, you don't need sharpshooters so much as business-minded investigators who know how to read financial statements."

Works of art and safe-haven assets, he explains, are today's "cashier's checks: exchange goods with stable value and a double advantage — masking the provenance of the investments, and guaranteeing the availability of the good in real time on the global market."

They are like trophies to exhibit as demonstrations of power.

The criminal chain operates, furthermore, like a value chain that, in its various phases, succeeds in raising and sustaining a constant growth in value.

Investigators have also succeeded in documenting a "reverb effect" enjoyed by the chief clans that own artistic masterpieces with universally recognized value. The extremely coveted items are trophies to exhibit as public demonstrations of power, prestige and dominion over their territory.

"For a mafia boss, having a painting or a sculpture by a major artist at his disposal is not just a money-laundering scheme. Being able to exhibit a masterpiece confers prestige and reputation," the general says. "It contributes to spreading the idea of supremacy that a hegemonic group wants to express in a geographic area, or an in a specific sector of illicit traffic."

Thus the possession of art becomes a sign of power and socio-cultural investiture. A status symbol. It's a well-oiled machine. Over the years, the clans have perfected the methods of hiding money trails coming from drugs and various other rackets and trades.

"Organized crime, in its different expressions, have an interest in investing in goods that can help hide their net worth," says Federico Cafiero De Raho. "Works of art with astronomical values are thus used as instruments to safely deposit huge sums of wealth."

And with a specific advantage for clans. "These investments in paintings, sculptures and archeological treasures effectively cover up the economic entity concentrated in the object," he adds.

A way, then, to muddy the waters, to not give any certainty as to how much illegal money has been laundered along the successive gears of the "artistic laundry machine." The price of an artwork remains secret. To determine how valuable it is, one must turn to a market that is based on subjective valuations.

The national anti-mafia prosecutor reconstructs a constantly updated case study that points unequivocally to a method of hidden payment via art. In hundreds of cases, in fact, paintings, sculptures and frescoes guarantee money transfers from one mafia group to another, protected from any risk.

With a piece of paper, with a private agreement, an exchange of virtual currency is implemented and secured between criminal organizations without a single masterpiece, and in some cases even entire art galleries, needing to be transferred from one location to another.

The artwork remains where it is kept — perhaps in a free port or duty-free zone, inaccessible to all — and passes from one buyer to another.

And this is one of the new frontiers on which attention is being focused, by investigators and legislators. Meanwhile, the fifth directive of the European Union on anti-money laundering imposes on art sector operators the same regulations of transparency currently applicable to banks, notaries and accountants.

A first step toward transparency.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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