How I Became One of the Most Successful Art Smugglers in the World
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.