Michel van Rijn is sort of a cross between Elmyr de Hory, the notorious art forger profiled in Orson Welles’ F for Fake and Red Reddington from The Blacklist. For years, he was considered the world’s most successful art smuggler and purveyor of dubious provenances. He did business with a lot of dirty parties, but he has also subsequently cooperated with nearly every intelligence service and law enforcement agency. Van Rijn (supposedly a distant relation) comes clean—partially—maybe, in King Adz’s misleadingly titled The Iconoclast, which screens during DOC NYC 2017.
The 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum theft remains the greatest unsolved art heist. The FBI received nineteen tips claiming van Rijn was the mastermind. Van Rijn assures us it wasn’t so, in a way that inspires little confidence. Still, the things he is willing to cop to are nothing less than astonishing, if true. Old van Rijn just chuckles over some of his early exploits, when he essentially built a pipeline for stolen art through countries with highly bribable authorities, like Turkey and Cypress. He did business with some nasty characters, which eventually caught up with him.
Van Rijn advised a veritable alphabet soup of agencies, but his closest association was with the Mossad, for whom he helped assassinate Dr. Josef Mengele. Um, what? Yep, that was no drowning accident, it was van Rijn and his partner. Or so he says. Seriously, it is hard to believe the Mossad would try to pass his death off as an accident (foregoing a major propaganda coup). It is even harder to believe they would settle for a quick death instead of an Eichmann-style trial, when van Rijn reportedly had him well in hand. The whole story smells like a fabulation, but van Rijn could have very well convinced himself it is true.
There is no question van Rijn is a questionable witness, which is how Adz intentionally presents him. Yet, if he is telling the truth twenty-percent of the time, it is enough to make you lose all faith in what is on the walls of the most prestigious museums, especially if Iconoclast is considered in tandem with previous art forgery documentaries, like Art and Craft and Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, along with Welles’ game-playing classic. That would probably be good enough for van Rijn, even if he did kill Mengele.If only one percent of it all is true, van Rijn still spins quite a globe-trotting, double-dealing yarn. Indeed, the slippery nature of truth throughout the doc makes it a fitting modern companion piece to F for Fake. You shouldn’t believe it, but it will never bore you. Recommended for skeptical and sophisticated viewers, The Iconoclast screens Thursday (11/16), as part of this year’s DOC NYC.