Bearbrick: An expensive doll turns money-laundering accessory
Bearbrick dolls have grabbed attention lately as the expensive collectables have appeared in news of police raids in both Thailand and Singapore where they have been labelled as evidence in suspected criminal operations.
In August, Singaporean police performed island wide anti-money laundering raids, rounding up a group of foreigners and seizing cash and assets that included luxury cars, watches and handbags. But what also caught people’s attention were multiple colourful bear-like figurines listed as “ornaments” by the police.
In Thailand, officials of the Police Cyber Taskforce on Tuesday searched the house of a fellow police officer suspected of involvement in online gambling websites and seized a number of Bearbrick and other dolls listed by police as high-value collectables.
The operation was a follow-up on the controversial searches of houses belonging to national police chief Pol General Surachate Hakparn and his subordinates on Monday, just two days before the Police Commission appointed a new national police chief. The position eventually went to Pol General Torsak Sukwimol.
Surachate, who was among the shortlisted candidates, said the searches were motivated by internal politics in the police department.
But what exactly are Bearbricks, and why were they among the items seized?
A Bearbrick – stylised as BE@RBRICK – is a collectable toy figure produced by Japanese company Medicom Toy. It was first introduced in 2001 as a gift to visitors at the World Character Convention in Tokyo.
Limited edition runs of Bearbricks are much-sought after by collectors and fashionistas.
Shawn Wee, owner of Singapore collectables store Eye For Toys, told the Straits Times the collection of Bearbricks seized by the Singapore police last month could be worth between 500,000 and 570,000 Singaporean dollars and appeared to be authentic.
The prices of Bearbricks in Thailand, meanwhile, could vary from tens of thousands of baht to several hundreds of thousands, depending on the rarity of the model.
High-value, easily transportable and unregulated, they are also an ideal vehicle for money laundering, experts say.
Jamie Ferrill, the head of financial crime studies at Charles Sturt University, told ABC Australia news that the purpose of money laundering was to obscure the trail between money and its illicit source.
She said the high value of luxury goods made them useful for money laundering.
"If a Bearbrick is worth, say, US$100,000, the money launderer can purchase it with their dirty money with relatively little suspicion," she said. "They can build up a nice collection with these high-worth goods and eventually sell them.”
Another valuable attribute of luxury goods is that they are transportable, Ferrill added.
"It is easier to move a handbag or a smaller Bearbrick across borders than a house or car," she said. "Moving these goods across borders adds more strands to that complex web and obscures the money trail even further."
Australian National University lecturer Anton Moiseienko also told ABC Australia that from a money launderer's perspective, Bearbrick is the sweet spot: Expensive, highly liquid goods in an unregulated market.
However, he added that purchasing goods with the proceeds of crime was illegal, and the items could still be confiscated by police.