You know how, when you ask someone how far it is to somewhere, they often give a distance and then add “as the crow flies”. Which would be fine, if you were a crow – which I assume you’re not, as it’s hard to work a keyboard with just a beak. But there’s no denying that it’s true: if you didn’t have to stick to the agreed road or rails, your journey would be shorter and faster. And so it is with criminals. You and I abide (for the most part…) by the rules, which can slow us down, as we supply information on our identity, report our earnings, compete the paperwork and buy the insurance. Criminals, on the other hand, are completely unhindered by laws or regulations – or even morals or shame. And so they can turn on a sixpence and sniff out and react to any new laundering opportunity.
In China, this is taking the form of contaminating the local art market, which is already the biggest in the world with sales topping US$5 billion year. Your smart Chinese criminal doesn’t waste time in the Macau casinos or the Hong Kong estate agencies: he simply buys counterfeit or real art and antiques, taking advantage both of the art sector’s long history of dealing in cash, and of the inherent difficulty of assessing the true worth/value/price of pieces of art. (Personally, I wouldn’t give house room to that pickled shark – the smell! – but in 2006 an American financier paid US$8 million for it. Financiers, eh?) In 2011, for instance, one Chinese chancer had a fake ancient jade burial suit made, and after getting a group of appraisers to verify its authenticity and value it at a staggering $375 million, he used the almost worthless suit as collateral to secure a $100 million bank loan. And only last month, a whole museum near Beijing was forced to close down when it was revealed that 39,920 of its 40,000 exhibits were fake – including a Qing dynasty vase decorated with bright green cartoon animals.
Perhaps tiring of the domestic art market, and seeing a new opportunity for getting their money out of their own jurisdictions and into one that is arguably more stable and reputable, Chinese criminals have joined their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in targeting French vineyards – not for tasting, but for owning. Stéphane Defraine, president of an organisation to protect and manage the Entre-Deux-Mers wine appellation in Bordeaux, might come to regret his cheery words uttered after Macau billionaire and casino owner Louis Ng Chi Sing bought the Château de Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy last year: “We are happy to welcome these buyers who pay for their purchases in cash, invest, and create jobs.” It’s the paying in cash bit that worries me… And not just me. In their recently published annual report for 2012 [in French, bien sûr], the French FIU Tracfin highlights “la montée des risques dans le secteur vitivinicole”, noting that some buyers of vineyards were using “complex judicial arrangements with holding companies located in fiscally privileged countries”, making it difficult to establish the origin and legality of the funds brought into France. Bottoms up!