A New York company is offering bitcoin owners a new, anonymous way to convert the booming digital currency into tangible wealth though sales of expensive art, cars and fine goods.
Money laundering experts say the White Company’s debut as a discreet online shop could be a boon to tax cheats and criminals, but CEO Elizabeth White stresses privacy and convenience.
White announced Tuesday the firm sold its first piece of fine art, a 2013 Mark Flood painting for $100,000 in bitcoin to an undisclosed Canadian buyer, making it “the first and only U.S. fine art and luxury goods dealer that accepts payment by cryptocurrency.”
White told the Washington Examiner the firm is compliant with regulations and that she pays state sales tax. She offers encrypted communications and worldwide shipping, however, and said it’s up to buyers to make sure they’re complying with applicable laws.
The White Company does not have an office, but offers on its website a Lamborghini for roughly $230,000 and artworks by contemporary artists for tens of thousands of dollars.
White, who has a background in luxury sales, said she has received deposits for “multiple” vehicles in bitcoin. A press release advises would-be customers: “If there is anything a client wants to purchase with bitcoin, we will be able to get it for them. Just yesterday we had a client wanting a suite at the Super Bowl and we made that happen.”
Bitcoin is soaring in value this year, making millionaires out of early investors. The Winklevoss twins, who sued Mark Zuckerberg over the creation of Facebook, bought $11 million in bitcoin in 2013 — an investment now worth more than $1 billion.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said last week that the Trump administration is weighing additional regulations as the Internal Revenue Service investigates possible tax evasion. The IRS won a court ruling last week for records from the company Coinbase, a popular platform for buying bitcoin.
Amid a cloud of potential regulatory action, White said her firm offers one of the safest ways to transfer virtual wealth into tangible goods. Online currency exchanges such as Coinbase have daily transaction caps and can identify users, she said.
“There’s so much newfound wealth and people are finding it troublesome to change it,” White told the Washington Examiner. “A lot of people want to stay private and anonymous and if that’s what they want to do, I want to assist them in transitioning their cryptocurrency into luxury goods.”
Money laundering experts say White’s anonymous sales can work because the IRS does not currently consider bitcoin “currency.”
In 2014, the IRS advised taxpayers that bitcoin was property, and that people paid in bitcoin should be taxed on the fair market value. But because bitcoin is not deemed currency, business owners don’t have to submit IRS Form 8300 reports, where companies usually have to reveal the identity of clients who spend more than $10,000.
“It is absurd that this loophole has been allowed to survive,” said Jack Smith, a former government financial fraud official who lectures at George Washington University’s law school. “So long as it does [exist], criminals will exploit it with increasing enthusiasm and otherwise law-abiding merchants will get drawn deeper into their webs."
William Byrnes, a money laundering expert at Texas A&M University’s law school, said it’s not necessarily White’s fault that some clients may be criminals, and said it’s due to "a hole in the reporting system” created by “bitcoin and its characterization," not her.
Byrnes said over the past decade, government pressure on banks has led criminals to move into fine art investments.
“Fine art can be very expensive, allowing for a criminal to place substantial amounts of money earned from, by example, human trafficking or narcotics distribution, in just a few transactions,” he said. “Valuable paintings can be easily hidden and moved across borders. ... Luxury goods, some which have risen to the level of artwork, present a similar opportunity for placing money and storing value.”
Richard Gordon, director of the Financial Integrity Institute at Case Western Reserve University, said that “any time someone can purchase a significant capital asset without any record is a channel to invest criminal proceeds without much fear of detection.”
“If you just want secrecy from creditors or rapacious criminals or governments, you can set up a company or trust in a jurisdiction that respects the rule of law, and have that buy the painting,” Gordon said. “Why you’d want more secrecy that that, unless of course you’re a criminal or tax evader, I really don’t know.”
White said it’s not her responsibility to vet clients. It’s rarely possible to know the background of buyers, making digital anonymity little different than a cash transaction for a Rolex watch, she said.
“I want to deal with honest businesspeople,” White said. “If I know they are doing criminal acts, I do not want to deal with them.”
White said her business model acknowledges risk from price fluctuations in bitcoin, and that a “proprietary algorithm” sets prices as a hedge against possible losses.