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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 August 2006, 08:19 GMT 09:19 UK
The 'Indiana Jones' of Chelsea
By Dan Bell
BBC News, London

Michel Van Rijn
Michel Van Rijn never underestimates the dangers of his work
Michel van Rijn was a wanted man by Scotland Yard - now he works for them.

He had a price on his head, has been shot at and once had to go into hiding. He has been hunting down art, first as a smuggler and now as an investigator, for 40 years.

Mr van Rijn, 55, is the rogue Dutch art dealer who helped police set up an arts sting last week which recovered an ancient Peruvian head dress stolen nearly 20 years ago.

Along the way he has made some formidable finds and some even more formidable enemies. Before prime minister Fidel Castro declared Cuba a communist state in the 1960s, the country was the playground of gangsters and film stars.

Mr van Rijn says that when they left, they also left their art.

He said he was soon slipping priceless artefacts out from under Castro's nose and that he was "active" in the country until the late 80s.

Finding an Egyptian sarcophagus in Cuba was one of his strangest discoveries. "It was a treasure trove if you knew the right people," he says.

But Cuba was just the start. By the mid 1990s, Mr van Rijn claims to have stolen a hoard of Nazi platinum from Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi.

The ancient Peruvian headdress recovered by police

His exploits, along with an outspoken website that tracks missing relics and points fingers at those Mr van Rijn suspects are responsible, has made him extremely unpopular with some very unpleasant people.

According to Mr van Rijn, the smugglers of South American antiquities, such as the octopus-shaped Peruvian head dress, are often linked to drug cartels.

But his most expensive recoveries have been while working on the right side of the law and it was his co-operation with German police in 1997 that forced him into hiding.

The operation led to the recovery of $40m worth of frescoes, mosaics and icons looted from churches in Cyprus after the Turkish invasion in 1974.

As a child he travelled across Europe with his father, who was both an artist and a dentist.

At 15, he travelled to Istanbul, lost his virginity in a bordello, and bought Afghan coats to sell on the streets of 60s Amsterdam. Unfortunately, they turned out to be half-prepared sheep skins and went rotten on the way home.

Part of a multi-million dollar hoard of Cypriot Art recovered by Mr. van Rijn

He decided art was less perishable, and began buying in Istanbul, and selling to galleries and auction houses in Amsterdam.

But by the late 80s, not only had he ruffled the feathers of shady figures across the world, Scotland Yard were on his trail as well. In other words, he says, "the world was getting a little smaller for me at that time."

Former Det Sgt Richard Ellis, founder of Scotland Yard's Art and Antiquities Squad, had been interested in registering Mr van Rijn as an informant.

"He came up as ... shall we say, a potential source," said Mr Ellis.

In 1989 Mr van Rijn decided to make the first move and called Mr Ellis to invite him to the London's Dorchester Hotel for a drink.

He remembers asking: "Are you coming with the cuffs or without the cuffs? Because I think it's easier to drink without the cuffs."

Michel's quite an unusual character, full stop
Former Det Sgt Richard Ellis

"Michel's quite an unusual character, full stop," said Mr Ellis. But he added: "If he has information it's generally going to be good."

And there is a lot that needs to be investigated.

A parliamentary select committee report in 2000, estimated that the illicit trade in cultural property is worth around $5bn a year and is second only to the trade in drugs and weapons.

Mr Ellis, now an arts and antiquities consultant, estimates 40% of that comes through London, the rest going to New York, Tokyo and Paris.

The most looted regions are often centres of conflict, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Feather boa

Iraq has been so heavily targeted during both Gulf wars that a UN resolution was passed specifically to outlaw the sale of Iraqi artefacts.

Mr van Rijn loves art, but hates the art world. His home, just a stone's throw from Christies, says it all. It is less a scholarly Aladdin's Cave, than a shrine to pop-cultural kitsch.

The first thing you see as you walk up the stairs is a plastic human skeleton wearing a purple wig and a pink feather boa.

"Basically you are never the owner of an art work," he says. "Like the octopus [artefact], it will outlive us all, that's the great thing."

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29 Jul 06 |  Country profiles


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