Lance Charnes's Reviews > Money Laundering Through Art: A Criminal Justice Perspective

Money Laundering Through Art by Fausto Martin De Sanctis
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bookshelves: nonfiction-crime-espionage, reviewed
Recommended for: Lawyers & judges wanting a legal review of money laundering

It's difficult reviewing a textbook because the usual topics -- plot, characterization, setting, prose styling -- are completely missing or beside the point. So I need to come at this from a non-literary perspective. The back-cover text promises "a bird's eye view of novel ways in which money is laundered through illegal activities involving art...It provides an overview of methods of money laundering through art, as well as specific case studies." This is why I bought the book. The question at hand: How well does it deliver?

A little background: one of the major challenges significant criminal enterprises face is turning black money white, that is, cleaning the dirty money so it can re-enter the legitimate financial world and be used to buy all the things you saw in Scarface. The opaque and squirrelly art market has become a prime way to do this, with its penchant for secrecy and anonymity, as well as for the huge amounts of money sloshing through it. This isn't about Pierce Brosnan stealing paintings in order to charm Rene Russo out of her dress; it's about drug cartels, gun runners, and mafias of various stripes needing ways to move their funds around and make them presentable enough to buy stakes in the non-criminal world.

Author De Sanctis is a JD with a 25-year career in criminal law. He's currently a federal appellate judge in Sao Paolo, appointed to a specialized Brazilian federal court that handles financial crimes and money-laundering cases. All this goes to say that he certainly has the background and technical knowledge to write on the subject. His prose is rather better than you'd expect for someone who's a lawyer and also speaks English as a second language; still, it's a textbook, not John Le Carre, so don't expect you'll get through it all in one sitting.

This slim volume (barely 200 pages) starts with lengthy discussions of the history of money-laundering law and enforcement. De Sanctis also outlines the various channels through which illicit funds can flow (wire transfers, moneychangers, prepaid cash cards and so on) and some of the channels for international law-enforcement and investigatory cooperation. An interesting feature is a closing chapter in which De Sanctis assembles all the open questions he asked in the beginning and attempts to answer them -- kind of an FAQ, which serves as a decent summary for all the information. If you're looking for a primer on the legal framework surrounding money laundering, you'll certainly get it here.

While the title is "Money Laundering through Art," though, art itself doesn't show up in any notable way until Chapters 4 and 5, the only ones featuring art as a vehicle for money laundering or disguising assets. The discussion is truly at a bird's-eye level, as long as that bird is flying at around 10,000 feet. De Sanctis outlines the major classes of players in the art world (dealers, museums, insurance companies, and so on), mentions some of the peculiarities of the art market that make chasing down bad actors so difficult, and reviews some notable recent-ish cases.

Unfortunately, he spends little time talking about the details of the crimes themselves and much more on the legal disposition of the ensuing cases. Several of the cases he cites seem to involve art only as part of the swag the authorities seized from the scofflaws, not necessarily as a vehicle for the money laundering itself. There are disappointingly few actual case studies; Chapter 5, in which most of them appear, is one of the shortest chapters in the book, and much of it consists of either bite-sized digests of news reports or exhaustive plumbing of the judicial findings in a handful of cases that in some instances seem only marginally related to the subject at hand. Other than some juicy tidbits about using stored-value cards and charitable trusts to disguise the transfer of illicit funds, I'm not much more informed now about the methods of money laundering than I was going into this.

While the back cover seems to promise an international view of the subject, it turns out to be surprisingly narrow. I learned far more than I needed to about the Brazilian legal system, a good deal about U.S. law, but very little about European regulations or processes and virtually nothing about Asia, the new, hot market for illicit art sales. Money laundering in general and the illicit art trade in particular are global businesses, but we don't get much of a view of what goes on in most of the world. Another puzzling lapse is the author's failure to probe the confluence of corporate secrecy laws (anonymous shell companies and so on), bank secrecy (Luxembourg, Singapore, BVI, Jersey), and the prevalence of anonymous buyers and sellers in the art market. This menage a trois is tailor-made for chicanery, but plays no part in the narrative.

Did the author fulfill the promise of his back-cover text? Partly. Money Laundering through Art does deliver an overview of laws and jurisprudence regarding money laundering in general in a reasonably digestible way. But it's only a surface review of how art is used to clean money, not the deeper plunge it seems to have been meant to be. It's a pricey little book, so make sure you want what it actually delivers before you hit "buy now".
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Reading Progress

August 15, 2014 – Started Reading
August 15, 2014 – Shelved
August 21, 2014 – Finished Reading

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