According to the air bill slapped on the crate that arrived at Kennedy International Airport from London, an unnamed painting worth $100 was inside. Only later did federal investigators discover that it was by the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and worth $8 million.
This painting, known as Hannibal after a word scribbled on its surface, was brought into the United States in 2007 as part of a Brazilian embezzler’s elaborate effort to launder money, the authorities say. It was later seized at a Manhattan warehouse by federal investigators who are now preparing to return it to Brazil at the behest of law enforcement officials there.
The painting’s seizure was a victory in the economy-rattling, billion-dollar fraud and money laundering case of Edemar Cid Ferreira, a former Brazilian banker who converted some of his loot into a 12,000-piece art collection.
The thing about laundering money through art or antiquities is that the customs officials are not sufficiently trained to recognize a cheap reproduction or no-name artist versus an authentic work or piece. That combined with the sheer volume of goods going through customs at any airport or port, results in a pretty good probability on any particular shipment that you can get a valuable item through.
Check out this 45-minute documentary, Blood Antiques, which discusses the problem of regulating the international trade in antiquities.