|By Jim Rutledge
BALTIMORE, Md. — Thousands of dollars of rare and collectible stolen banknotes were returned to two East Coast dealers March 14, after the notes were discovered months earlier in the possession of a Russian diplomat attending a Baltimore coin show. The diplomat has since been deported.
Diplomat Georgy Valentinovich Kochetov, 49, identified as First Secretary of the Russian Consulate in Washington, D.C. on the U.S. State Department’s database, was caught stuffing hundreds of foreign, collectible banknotes into a shopping bag at the Whitman Coin and Collectibles Expo at the Baltimore Convention Center.
A witness, who was a coin dealer, watched Kochetov slip the currency into the white bag while he was perusing the banknotes at the booth of New York money memorabilia dealer Diego Paz. Owner of Chelsea Coins of New York, Paz was secretly alerted by a dealer who was set up near Paz’s booth at the November 2012 convention of 400 dealers.
Baltimore police detective Wayne Spoksky, who is assigned to the department’s “pawn squad,” was at the show meeting with the Expo’s head of security, Kenny Mullin, when they were alerted to the possible thefts. Kochetov was taken into custody and escorted to the rear of the hall. In handcuffs, Spoksky began to interrogate Kochetov, who was uncooperative and remained silent.
After repeated questioning, Kochetov finally revealed his name and identified himself as a Russian diplomat. While being questioned, he also admitted to stealing the banknotes, and made a plea to pay for them at “full price.” At no time, did Kochetov claim diplomatic immunity. It was only later that Spoksky was told to release Kochetov after he confirmed his identity and his diplomatic status.
In addition to the currency belonging to Paz, the detective discovered banknotes taken from a Vienna, Va. dealer who had a booth at same show. When questioned by AntiqueWeek, asking not to be identified, the dealer said he operates Banknotes of the World and had about $6,000 worth of currency stolen from his booth.
After an investigation and an examination of the banknotes, Spoksky was alerted by the State Department to return the stolen currency. Spoksky hand-delivered the stacks of notes to Paz and the Virginia dealer at the March 14-17 coin show at the Whitman Coin Expo, also at the Baltimore’s convention center.
Spoksky said his investigation had resulted in a 10-pound stack of documents, 8 inches thick. As part of his Pawn Squad duties, he regularly attends Baltimore’s conventions of antiques and collectibles.
Paz’ first-hand account
Paz gave AntiqueWeek a first-hand account of the theft.
“He knew what he was doing,” Paz said. “His tastes on notes were really special because he retrieved them from boxed notes that had to do with (current) Queen Elizabeth II. These notes are very popular, also in demand and very expensive.
“His other tastes were on African notes from the French Colonies. He retrieved the notes that were stored in single plastic currency sleeves designed for collectors. When the notes were recovered, they were still in the plastic sleeves.”
Paz said about 400 notes were taken, mostly valued between $65 to $100, a few Dominican Republic notes were valued at more than $100.
“His main trick,” Paz pointed out, “was pulling notes (and putting them) on the side as his potential purchases in order to disguise what he was doing – stealing.”
Often, Paz said, Kochetov did make several purchases, spending a few hundred dollars in an attempt to conceal his real purpose.
After Kochetov was caught with Paz’s banknotes, Paz then suspected Kochetov may have been stealing from him all day and unloading the banknotes into his car. Because of his “immunity status,” police could not search Kochetov’s car.
Paz said he first met Kochetov in August at the American Numismatic Assoc. Convention (ANA) in Philadelphia, and “thought the guy” was just a customer who liked banknotes. ANA Communications Director Ryan Scott said there was no record of Kochetov being an ANA member, but he could have been a paid attendee to the money expo. There are no records kept of those who are visitors, Scott said.
Paz believes Kochetov used both conventions to allegedly steal notes. Paz said Kochetov “used many excuses to (probably) unload stolen notes into his car.”
While he was examining notes, Paz claimed, Kochetov would ask Paz or his wife, “Let me go to the ATM machine to get more money to pay for the notes. Let me go to the bathroom. Let me take a break. I want to get something to eat.”
Paz “that anytime he came up with that kind of excuse, he was going, instead, to his car to unload.
Following the convention, Paz learned that “somebody unknown to us stole from us during the show, big time – $50,000 (worth of banknotes),” he said. “We figured out that this guy stole 1,800 notes during the three days we saw him at our table.”
There was never any proof, however, and Paz only came to that conclusion as a result of the incident at this month’s Baltimore convention. Paz is setting up new security measures at his booths to prevent becoming a victim in the future.
Paz thinks it might be easy to steal from him because he carries a large inventory (of banknotes), which any customer can spend several hours perusing his currency boxes. “It is kind of impossible to stick around for two hours watching the customer close,” Paz said. “If we do this, we end up intimidating the customer, and it doesn’t look right. Besides, we must take care of the other customers at the same time.”
Paz was the subject of an AntiqueWeek auction story in October when he bid on a series of banknotes from Pakistan and India while attending the 12th Archives International Auction, in Fort Lee, N.J. Paz is known as a specialist in coins and currency from Colombia, his native homeland.
Kochetov’s diplomatic role
The details about Kochetov and his diplomatic role are shrouded in secrecy, a typical precaution to protect diplomatic status.
However, Kochetov was issued a diplomatic driver’s license by the U.S. State Department on Nov. 2, 2011, and it was due to expire when his three-year mission assignment concluded on Nov. 30, 2014. He had only served in the United States for one year before he was sent back to Russia. His address was listed as the Russian Embassy compound in northwest Washington on a hill overlooking the city.
He resided in the 10-story Russian diplomatic residence in the heavily guarded and gated embassy compound – one of the largest diplomatic complexes in the city.
Kochetov was identified on the State Department’s Diplomatic list for 2011, but his name had been removed from the February 2013 list of 119 diplomats.
Diplomats who serve as “First Secretaries” hope to become future ambassadors.
Neither the State Department, nor the Baltimore Police Department would say if Kochetov was asked to leave the country voluntary, or was recalled by the Russian government. Repeated calls to the Russian Consulate were not forwarded to the appropriate official. After 26 hours of seeking an explanation from the U.S. State Department, an official told AntiqueWeek, “We can’t comment on this situation.”
Additionally, Spoksky was blocked by the U.S. State Department from making additional comments to AntiqueWeek.
Whitman Coin Expo security