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Kleptocrats among ranks of offshore owners of over 130,000 UK properties

Oligarchs among the offshore owners of UK property; prosecutors consider letting former Louvre director and curator go; and billions in crypto stolen from the Silk Road seized.

Eimer Cotter
November 11, 2022

While the world marks Remembrance Day and this week watched the US mid-term elections with bated breath, the fight against financial crime ground on. Independent researchers found that oligarchs and tax evaders were among the beneficiaries of 138,000 offshore company-owned properties in England and Wales; French prosecutors considered dropping antiquities trafficking charges against a former Louvre director and curator; and the US Department of Justice announced the seizure of billions of dollars in crypto from a decade-old online heist.

Find out more on these stories below.

Research finds beneficiaries with financial crime links among 138,000 offshore company-owned UK properties

Researchers for the Wealth Chain Project (WCP), a think tank focused on generating “a discussion amongst the different communities about the findings and the policy approaches that might mitigate any inequalities arising from wealth chain investment,” have found in their 2022 Tax Haven Money In London’s Real Estate report that a total of 138,000 properties in England and Wales, located on 94,000 separate plots, are in the hands of offshore companies. Some have insalubrious ultimate beneficial ownerships.

Highlighted among the findings were:

  • 42,543 of the offshore-owned properties are in London, mostly in the higher-end areas
  • 9,066 of these properties are in the City of Westminster
  • 5,453 of them are in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
  • The overall value of the offshore-owned London properties is over £55bn

The WCP report’s leader, Rex McKenzie was blunt in his character assessment of the criminals who exploit this lamentable status quo, when he said that “the billionaires and millionaires who use offshore services to buy houses are part of a transnational wealth elite that includes the world’s oligarchs, super-rich, kleptocrats, tax dodgers and criminals.”

The UK government meanwhile has implemented the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 in August 2022, which requires all current and future offshore-company property owning entities to register and supply the particulars of their true beneficial owners by 31 January 2023, although it was claimed elsewhere that uptake of the new rules had been worryingly slow by the time of the WCP report release.

Read more on this story at The Guardian.

Ex-Louvre president and curator could both be off the hook on antiquities trafficking charges

The French legal examining chamber is considering dropping charges laid against both the former director and his co-accused curator at the iconic Parisian flagship art museum, The Louvre. The charges, which were first reported on in late May 2022, were of complicity in the trafficking of ancient Egyptian artefacts.

At that time, a French judicial investigation culminated in ex-Louvre President, Jean-Luc Martinez, and former curator, Jean-François Charnier, being charged with “complicity in fraud” and “concealing the origin of criminally obtained works by false endorsement” in relation to the unsanctioned transfer of several invaluable ancient Egyptian antiquities to the Louvre’s sister institution in Abu Dhabi. Among the artefacts in question were a 1327 BC granite stele bearing the seal of the legendary boy Pharoah, Tutankhamun.

The possible exoneration of Martinez, who has always denied the charges, and Charnier by France’s public prosecution service, comes against the backdrop of a global investigation into the transnational antiquities trafficking operation, which saw an arrest warrant issued in Germany for Serop Simonian in late-August 2022 for his alleged role in the fraudulent sale of €55m in Egyptian artefacts to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The French legal chamber is set to rule on whether to drop the charges against Martinez and Charnier in early February 2023.

Read more on this story at The Art Newspaper.

US Justice Department belatedly announces $3.3b seizure of Bitcoin stolen a decade ago

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) waited for a year, until 7 November 2022, to announce the 9 November 2021 seizure of $3.3b worth of cryptocurrency from the Gainesville, Georgia home of James Zhong, who was arrested during the raid. At the time, the sum was then a record seizure amount for the department.

Zhong subsequently pled guilty on 4 November 2022 to defrauding the now-defunct online dark web black market, the infamous Silk Road Marketplace, of over 50,000 Bitcoin from 2011 to 2013. By the time of the November 2021 raid, when investigators discovered the stolen Bitcoin stored on a device secreted beneath a popcorn tin, the value of the cryptocurrency had soared to $3.36b. The seized funds were had dropped in value to $1.1b in early November 2022.

At the time of the November 2022 announcement, the haul was the DOJ’s second-largest cryptocurrency seizure, sitting behind the $3.6b Bitfinex hack bust which the department announced on 8 February 2022.

The US attorney heading up the prosecution, Damian Williams, was bullish about the achievements and capabilities of authorities, adding that “thanks to state-of-the-art cryptocurrency tracing and good old-fashioned police work, law enforcement located and recovered this impressive cache of crime proceeds. This case shows that we won’t stop following the money, no matter how expertly hidden, even to a circuit board in the bottom of a popcorn tin.”

Zhong faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced in February 2023.

Read more on this story at OCCRP.

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Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

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