Merry Michel immortalised on canvas by Charles Sabba
‘If I’m such a loveable rogue, why do so many people want me dead?’
I'm not sure how I discovered the life and work (both the same thing) of Michel van Rijn but somehow I did, and immediately got in contact with him and arranged an interview, which I published in 1percent - the journal of all things good. We have been friends ever since, fellow admirers of each others work, and even though we don’t see that much of each other (he still leads a swashbuckling life) he is one of my all-time heroes: A fearless adventure with a high price on his head, as many of the world's most notorious people want him dead.
MvR is one of the world's last true adventurers, full of bravery and spunk, with a vast repertoire of stories about taking risks, about how he had a dream and beat the system: a rare thing indeed in this day and age of feckless famous-for-absolutely-nothing 'celebrity' wannabees and droves of star-fuckers. MvR's 1993 book Hot Art Cold Cash (Little, Brown) is more a bond-esq adventure story than art history book and it generated him a whole lot of fame when it was published. But I'm glad we met when we did, after the heat had died down, as I'm never one to swallow the media spin and have to discover the truth about something or someone for myself.
I have been writing about Michel, ever since and by 2008 he had a serious price on his head. Whenever we'd meet in London he'd have his faithful armed-to-the-teeth ex-special forces body guard, and then it all went quiet, he disappeared and sometime later, surfaced in Amsterdam where he was safe, where his adventure had began in the 60s.
“Michel van Rijn is responsible for ninety percent of all art smuggling cases throughout the world. And he would gladly like to claim that he was also involved in the other ten percent.” DCI Richard Ellis, New Scotland Yard
October 17, 2006
'Today is the Day', as my late friend, the legendary Mel Fisher, used to say during his sixteen year hunt for the 'Atocha Mother Load' while being declared insane by the rest of the world. Mel was proven right, made history and a billion dollars or so, but paid the ultimate price, having lost a son during his quest for treasure when one of the vessels capsized.
Today is the Day; the Day that your inkslinger has decided enough is enough. I'll keep it as brief as possible. For five years my website has been a beacon in the endless sea of the illicit trade in the art world. It didn't bring me a billion dollars as in Mel's case, neither did it bring me history, but neither, Baruch Hashem, did I pay the ultimate price. Today is also the Day that I received photos of one of my children at my doorstep.
That's all there is!
The best place to start is the beginning and the above statement is the beginning of the end for one phase of the life and times of Michel van Rijn. There is nothing like a threat against one's children to stop you dead in your tracks and ask 'Do I really want my kids involved in this?' and the one thing dearest to MvR are his kids. Nothing will come in the way of his love, not even his life's work. So I begin sat in the kitsch kitchen of MvR's Amsterdam apartment and I show him a print out of the above statement and await his response.
‘Well if they are gonna get you then they’re gonna get you. If they can get to the president of the United States then who the fuck am I?’
It was on the return journey for more coats, somewhat richer, that he met a guy named Dergazarian who was holding a few icons and Michel discovered a whole new world: smuggling antiquities and then selling them in Europe for considerable sums.
A good question: who the fuck is he? Michel was born in 1950s Paris. His father was Dutch, his mother Jewish-French. He started out in business when he was still at school, after he rented a vacant shop/gallery in the heart of Amsterdam. He had the shop window and needed something to sell in it and decided to drive to Istanbul and buy some sheepskin coats. He got the coats, which he shifted (thanks to the timely advent of hippy fashion in 1966) without even breaking a sweat and it was on the return journey for more coats, somewhat richer, that he met a guy named Dergazarian who was holding a few icons and Michel discovered a whole new world: smuggling antiquities and then selling them in Europe for considerable sums. And began covertly shipping them to Amsterdam and selling them out of the shop. One day smelly old sheepskins and the next rare and valuable artefacts. Dergazarian told Michel to come to Beirut.
‘My first venture into commerce had nothing to do with art. I was still at school, but I wanted to break out. It was a warm spring evening and I was sauntering along the Prinsengracht. These were the streets on which had lived the wealthy merchants who had made the city the centre of the world’s commerce in the seventeenth century and had built the dignified brick houses with stone steps which flank the canals. Now, some of these lovely buildings were dilapidated and many had been broken up into apartments, store rooms or tiny shops. One such space stood empty. It was a perfect location and I knew it would make an ideal gallery or showroom. It could be rented, and I suddenly realized that I had just about enough money to take it for a few months, long enough to acquire stock and sell it and earn enough to pay the next installment of rent. It was crazy — but I simply had to take the place.’
Beirut wasn’t known as the Paris of the East for nothing. It used to be the most wealthiest, artistic, cosmopolitan place on the planet, and this was one of the reasons that Michel moved here. The other was the seemingly unlimited supply of people selling antiquities icons and other priceless artefacts. It didn’t take Michel long to realise that the smartest guys there were the Armenians, who had their own quarter in the city, which is where he bumped into Dergazarian once again. He had two of the most amazing icons with him that had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and it was these artefacts that really opened Michel’s eyes to the real deal goods to be had. Soon the two of them were on a trip, as business partners, to Armenia to buy the treasures at the source. They flew in with a ton of Roubles sewn into the lining of their clothes and the trip was not only an eye-opener about how business was done (with cash) and how to get around the red tape and authorities (with more cash and bottles of French Brandy), it also made Michel a very rich man.
‘Another dream of that afternoon also came true — to live at least part of the time in Beirut. Not only would it be convenient for future raids into Armenia, there were also happy hunting grounds for icon collectors in Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, while Beirut itself attracted many dealers with things to sell as well as wealthy buyers. And I knew that here I could live well; in comparison, Amsterdam seemed dull like its weather and prosaic. I felt comfortable in the exotic, colourful kaleidoscope which was Beirut.’
Then Michel met a guy who urged him to check out Cyprus then a ‘godforsaken hole’ but chock full of treasure. The British controlled Cyprus in the late 60s and were being severely harassed by both the Greek and Turkish communities there – quite rightly – and, as long as they were able to retain the use of their military bases, were only too willing to get the fuck out and leave the natives to come to some sort of arrangement – to fight it out among themselves. The politics of Cyprus were, however, of no interest to Michel; what mattered to him was the existence throughout the island of Greek churches, often with their original icons. Fine icons had been painted in Cyprus certainly as early as the tenth century, and the capture of the island by the Turks in 1570 had not marked the end of the tradition although the later icons were increasingly influenced by Venetian and Western styles. But there was no register of the paintings, and precious few people outside the island cared about them or were even aware of their existence for they were for the most part in tiny isolated villages.
I agreed to buy them and some important icons removed from the Monastery of St Chrysostomos which he offered, as well as another great fresco depicting the Tree of Jesse which had stood in the Monastery of Antiphonitis. I took photographs to record the state of the pieces when I bought them.
In 1974 there was a coup on the island, inspired by the dictatorial regime of the colonels in Greece, and the immediate reaction was an invasion of the island by the Turkish army, avowedly to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority, but this drive, and the subsequent breakdown of a cease-fire, were the occasions for brutal persecution of the fleeing Greek Cypriots and wanton destruction of property (particularly items of Christian worship). Sensing an opportunity, Michel was there in a flash, hooking up with a turkish fixer. This guy also held a Cypriot passport and had property in both the Turkish north and the Greek south of the island. His relations with senior officers in the Turkish army were so good that he was referred to sometimes as the official archaeologist to the occupying force, which was hype. Not long after the arrival of the United Nations troops, he reached an understanding with important officers in the Finnish contingent – which made it possible for him to slip from one sector to the other.
‘I took a regular flight into Cyprus. My fixer – Aydin – was waiting for me and we drove into the Turkish north, using an illegal route avoiding checkpoints. Not far from the village of Psillatos stands a barn, and this was the depot which housed the Lysi frescoes and other treasures. Aydin led me past a Turkish army sentry, and I saw how the frescoes had been carefully crated to avoid damage. I agreed to buy them and some important icons removed from the Monastery of St Chrysostomos which he offered, as well as another great fresco depicting the Tree of Jesse which had stood in the Monastery of Antiphonitis. I took photographs to record the state of the pieces when I bought them. Then we supervised their loading on to a Turkish truck. I handed over half the agreed purchase price; Aydin was to receive the balance when he had shipped the pieces out by way of Lamaka and they had arrived safely in Munich.’
Then in the 1980s Michel discovered an amazing supply of Russian Icons, behind the Iron Curtain especially in Moscow and Leningrad. Because of the stringent law against inherited wealth, plenty of people were ready to dispose of family treasures on the black market; the real challenge came when one attempted to take them out to the West.
Over the years he had built up an extensive and efficient organisation, based on his friends in the Armenian Mafia. The news that Michel could be trusted had spread, and he had been able to go seriously into the smuggling business: not merely works of art but also men and women who had to get out of the Soviet Union. It was a bit like the underground railway that used to spirit runaway slaves out of the South before the American Civil War. Not that his efforts were entirely altruistic; it was natural that people he helped to escape should turn to him if they had valuable objects to sell.
‘I was not the only person involved in the trade, although I think my activities had helped to stimulate interest, and I received a lot of dubious propositions. A highly respectable diplomat at the British embassy sidled up to me at a Moscow cocktail party and whispered out of the side of his mouth. “I say, Michel, old boy, there is a story going around that you are buying up these icon things.” He waved his hand as if to indicate that such baubles had little charm for him. Although I had not been meeting dealers openly, my interest in works of art was widely known and I reckoned I had enough influential contacts in Moscow and outside to keep me out of serious trouble, so his revelation left me cold. “Now you don’t want any aggro with these Russkies, you know. They can be very nasty if they catch you trying to smuggle the damned things out.’ He adopted a grim expression, then winked at me. “But I can solve your little problem. I’ll tell you where to bring them, a few at a time you understand, and we can slip them into the diplomatic bags without any fuss. No trouble then with some nosy customs johnny. You’d be surprised at how many of you fellows I help this way. And you won’t find it expensive, not considering the risk-free service.”’
I noticed that the customs officer signed and stamped the form even when I left lots of useful blank lines between entries in which other items could be added later. At the end of my tour of inspection, I thanked my hosts effusively, announced that I had been greatly impressed and would certainly be sending them icons for restoration
Michel turned the guy down as only a few weeks previously a member of the Finnish embassy had been stopped at the airport. If the Russians suspected someone or had been tipped off, didn’t give a damn about diplomatic immunity. One of the best routes out of the Soviet Union was on student coaches travelling back to Europe through Berlin. Another cover was provided by the Soviet authorities themselves: The Novo-Export shops were an initiative to earn some much-needed hard currency. They sold overpriced rubbish to tourists and dealers and each item was painstakingly listed and labelled, with a ton of official stamps that gave the paperwork a truly impressive appearance. And all Michel had to do was attach stickers from the tourist tat bought in the official Novo-Export shops to the almost priceless icons stickers, he had some excellent cover.
‘I had the good luck a little later to come across another way of removing icons. Back in Holland, at a reception at the Polish embassy, I was told about a new workshop near Warsaw specialising in the repair and restoration of such things as icons and was invited to visit. When I arrived, I was given real VIP treatment: limousine at the airport and a suite at the best hotel. All very pleasant, but what caught my attention was the customs declaration form I was given. It was the usual sheet of bureaucratic bumbledom with lines for the traveller to fill in with details of items which he was bringing into the country. I noticed that the customs officer signed and stamped the form even when I left lots of useful blank lines between entries in which other items could be added later. At the end of my tour of inspection, I thanked my hosts effusively, announced that I had been greatly impressed and would certainly be sending them icons for restoration. Then I called on a friend, Joseph, who lived in Warsaw and was a trader in a small way in antiques, curios and plain junk. It was not long before I made my next trip to Warsaw. Getting stuff from Russia to Poland presented no problem, so I was able to send a shipment of valuable icons to Joseph. I waited until I heard from him that they were safely in his basement, then, armed with impressive official forms from the embassy, I flew to Warsaw with the same number of icons. However these were of mediocre quality, mostly disposed of by Novo-Export at auctions in London, which matched the black market pieces in subject and size. These I duly declared to the customs, stating that they were being brought to Poland for restoration and re-export. The forms were produced, the icons examined, and once more stamps and signatures were affixed on the forms; the icons were not marked in any way.’
For the next two decades Michel wheeled and dealed his way across the planet, buying low, selling high, and as I’ve established, the art and artefacts in which he traded were often looted, sometimes stolen, frequently faked. He began his Paris operations in the 1980s and soon was dealing in high art, and it was after a client had admired a Cezanne Michel had recently bought when he showed Michel a photograph of a sketch of a girl drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. his eyes lit up. He knew that the Japanese would pay almost anything for the drawing. The drawing was a preliminary sketch by da Vinci, for his painting, The Virgin of the Rocks, and after a year he tracked it down in Italy and bought it for $700,000.
After a year or so of getting it ‘authenticated’ and exported from Italy with the correct (but forged) paperwork, a Japanese museum bought it for $14,500,000. After the deal had gone through and it was all over the media, the Italian authorities wanted to put Michel in jail for the illegal export of an item of national importance but were powerless to act after the drawing turned out to be a fake…
‘There was complete hysteria, with national television coverage, the press berserk and formal government statements. As for the actual drawing, if it were a poor thing of little worth, what was all the fuss about? The press waded into the smear campaign with gusto, declaring that the $14.5 million price ‘was simply absurd…’
The art establishment dismissed the book as the memoirs of a smuggler, an extravagant pirate and an irrepressible quack. However, their masks of outraged self-righteousness would soon begin to show some not-so-easy-to-restore cracks. This was when he really began to get intro trouble. Culminating in his arrest in Switzerland and then receiving the death threat to his children.
Over the years his clientsincluded mafia dons, movie stars, corrupt politicians, terrorists, narco-traffickers as well as run-of-the-mill millionaires and aristocrats. Then they became his targets, when in the 1990s, Michel took on a new role. From his contacts in the art and antiquities business he would learn about high-value illicit artefacts coming onto the market. He would then propose elaborate stings to the relevant law-enforcement agencies and operate under cover to get the evidence they needed for arrests and convictions. He started blogging about these exploits on his website and then came the death threats.
‘You get the ones who threaten, but never fear the people who threaten you. But you have to with the ones I expose with smuggling routes – also used for heroin – they are much heavier people. They don’t threaten, they just turn up on your fucking doorstep.’
In 1993 the Art World was turned upside down by the publication of Hot Art Cold Cash. How was it possible that a renowned publishing house like Little Brown had fallen for the exploits of con-man Michel van Rijn? The art establishment dismissed the book as the memoirs of a smuggler, an extravagant pirate and an irrepressible quack. However, their masks of outraged self-righteousness would soon begin to show some not-so-easy-to-restore cracks. This was when he really began to get intro trouble. Culminating in his arrest in Switzerland and then receiving the death threat to his children.
‘Artists are plugged like records. The dealers bring them into auctions and they hype the price; they orgianze press about the work. Nowadays it’s not that you have to prove you are an artist, the outside world has to prove that you are not an artist. If you are in capable commercial hands they hype the fuck out of you. Look at Jeff Coons, look at Damien Hurst. It’s all a repetition of something, it’s nothing new. If you hype it well then you get away with it, and you make the money. Which is all it is about in the end. There should be a fair rewards system. I’m talking about the big major dealers who have absolutely no morals or scruples, and they go all the way. On one side it’s the most beautiful world out there and on the other it’s a cut-throat, murderous place. It’s worse than the drugs and the second hand car market put together.’
Today Michel still buys and sells art and antiquities, but his focus is not on the profit any more. Has amassed one of the most impressive and complete collections of religious art in the world and this is what he is all about these days. When I introduced him to some street art and his eyes lit up.
‘Street Art is no different to Leonardo Davinchi. Street art is art of the highest form, you have great artists and you have wankers. I admire that the street artists who go into museums and hang their own work there, I did it in a different way as I fooled the art world and so they hang it for me.'
I am currently working on a film of the life of Michel as I reckon it’s much more exciting than anything the (multiple) writers could dream up for Bond or Bourne. Michel wants to be played by Brando, but hears that there may be a problem with his availability. Michel has been married seven times and has four children.
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