It’s a wristwatch that could only have belonged to someone like Pablo Escobar: a solid gold Rolex encrusted with hundreds of fine diamonds. With a sale value estimated at US$70,000, it went to the highest bidder at Colombia’s first warehouse auction of narco-goods for the equivalent of just US$8,500.
A knock-off Rolex that was owned by a Farc rebel commander known as Raúl Reyes, meanwhile, went for three times its street price.
The silent auction held over two days in Bogotá aimed to clear out more than 20 years of artwork, jewellery and other goods seized from Colombia’s colourful pantheon of flashy drug traffickers who couldn’t spend their millions fast enough.
On the block were paintings by renowned Colombian artists Alejandro Obregón, David Manzur and Luis Caballero. One Obregón painting fetched $77,000 (£47,900).
The bidder who went home with the Escobar watch, and about $50,000 worth of other gold jewellery, says he used his savings to make his purchases. “I don’t trust banks,” says the buyer, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
“You never know who might track you down and ask for their things back,” he says, explaining his caution. In the case of the Escobar Rolex, that’s unlikely: the capo of capos was shot dead on a rooftop in 1993 in Medellín, where the buyer is from.
The fact that the Colombian government has been holding on to drug traffickers’ things for so long points to the long and tortuous legal process of asset forfeiture, which can sometimes take as long as 10 years. A bill making its way through Congress would streamline procedures and shorten the time to a maximum of 18 months.
The Escobar Rolex buyer says he’s likely to erase the past of the things he bought at the auction and claims that he will melt down most of it to make new jewels. “I don’t like where these things come from,” he says, referring to the jewels’ narco past. “For me it’s just an investment.”
Next to the luxury items up for auction were surprisingly mundane objects, such as costume jewellery and cheap prints, an indication that either the narcos were duped into buying fakes, or that some of the originals may have been quietly switched in the two decades the goods sat in a government warehouse.
And then there’s the rebel commander’s fake Rolex, which came in several disassembled parts.
For Paula Silva, who made the winning $80 bid, the value it holds is historical. The watch was found on Reyes after he was killed in an air raid on his jungle camp in 2008. Before it was determined to be a knock-off, Colombians were scandalised that a leftist guerrilla leader would be sporting such a luxury item, but a former government peace commissioner later revealed that he had bought the watches for several rebel leaders at 20 euros each when they were on an official tour of Europe in 2000, during ultimately failed peace talks.
Silva bought it, along with several shiny golden replicas of Egyptian relics and some elaborate bronze sculptures, to add to a roving museum set up by the consulting firm she works for, which specialises in helping firms stay away from money-laundering traps.
“It’s amazing what people will buy to clean dirty money,” she says.