Sunday, June 14, 2009

Khochinskiy's competitors? Armenian antiquities smugglers

I wanted to find out more about Alexander Khochinskiy's antiquities dealing, so I put off work and searched for clues (unsuccessfully). I think there might be some insights into his activities through Misha Glenny's (2009) McMafia; but I'll have to re-read it to rediscover them. Certainly, I believe there are clues to Khochinskiy's operation in the operation of Khochinskiy's competitors, Armenian antiquities smugglers.

Between 1988 and 1991, the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian community in Azerbaijan caused an exodus of the Armenian community from the Soviet Union (Melkonian, 2004).

In his (1993) confessional/(self-)promotional Hot Art, Cold Cash, Dutch art and antiquities dealer and smuggler Michel van Rijn (PDF) explained that 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' (1993: 31).

The Armenian mafia had a dual human-and-antiquities trade, and van Rijn worked in it; he compared the human trade to the eighteenth-to-nineteenth-century Underground Railroad, a people smuggling network through which runaway slaves in the South of the United States escaped to freedom in the North, or in Canada.

In fact, it seems antiquities smuggler van Rijn first worked with the Armenian mafia in people trafficking; van Rijn won the Armenian mafia's trust through human trafficking, and thereby won access to 'a whole network of black market dealers who bought from the ordinary Russians' (1993: 33).

Van Rijn revealed that he and the Armenian mafia had 'an unexpected ally' in the antiquities trade: the Soviet Union itself - 'they knew there was a steady stream of goods leaving the country and they could always do with hard currency' (1993: 33). So, the Soviet government established Novo-Export. Was that how Alexander Khochinskiy established Bohemia antiquities gallery?

The Soviet Union's Novo-Export sold worthless antiquities to Western collectors, so van Rijn bought worthless licensed antiquities and valuable illicit antiquities, then exported the illicit antiquities with the legal antiquities' export licences. Was that how Alexander Khochinskiy could guarantee permission to export antiquities?

With this appropriation of state enterprise, '[their] "underground railway" was active, running refugees as well as relics out of the Soviet Union' (1993: 40). And when Novo-Export opened a department store in Amsterdam, it employed van Rijn and his colleague, religious art collector Robert Roozemond, to run it. Van Rijn and Roozemond subverted Novo-Export's business, and used it as both a cover and a platform for 'selling black-market icons smuggled out of the USSR [in] a department store owned by the Soviet government' (1993: 42).

Glenny, M. 2009: McMafia: Seriously organised crime. London: Vintage.

Melkonian, E. 2004: "The Armenian Diaspora (Spyurk)". The Embassy of the Republic of Armenia in Washington, D.C., 5th May. Available at:

Van Rijn, M. 1993: Hot art, cold cash. London: Little, Brown and Company. Available at:

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