The Armenian Connection

  • One partner of the Viennese school is a secretive foundation which has specialized in rare musical instruments.
  • Another partner is a artist management agency with close ties with a company focused on international wealth and investment opportunities.
  • Several students of the Richard Wagner Conservatory are among the winners of a music competition in Armenia. Their teachers were among the jury members awarding them price money and a rare violin.

In cooperation with Hetq

In its brochures and on its website, the Richard Wagner Conservatory promises its students access to the world’s most exclusive instruments. In an interview, the school’s director Mirza K. claimed that he had held one of the most expensive specimens in his own hands. “Holding 17 million euros really isn’t as easy as I thought,” he said with obvious pride. As if he were seeking to prove this feat, he then uploaded a picture of the rare violin to his conservatory’s website.

Screenshot: website of the Richard Wagner Conservatory

The image depicted a Stradivarius or Guaneri violin, the most expensive instruments available in the music world. For a student to even get close to such a unique specimen, powerful sponsors would be required. A cooperation with the Del Gesú Foundation makes it possible, wrote the RWK. And the private foundation’s logo was featured on the conservatory’s website.

At the beginning of this year, the website of Vienna’s Richard Wagner Conservatory was still adorned with colorful logos: those of an Austrian instrument rental service, an Iranian music school, and two Swiss companies, one that specializes in music management and another that apparently deals in all things Stradivarius.

When asked about the nature of its cooperation with the Swiss companies, RWK abruptly removed the logos from its website. The people behind the logos aren’t eager to talk, either. It isn’t the first time the Richard Wagner Conservatory makes itself seem bigger than it actually is. The music school has spun a web of contradictions and obscure business activities in other countries, complete with fake teachers and fast residence permits, falsely awarded bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Armenia, and links to a major money-laundering scandal in Bosnia.

Screenshot website before
Screenshot website after

An ominous private foundation as a partner

The image depicted a Stradivarius or Guaneri violin, the most expensive instruments available in the music world. For a student to even get close to such a unique specimen, powerful sponsors would be required. A cooperation with the Del Gesú Foundation makes it possible, wrote the RWK. And the private foundation’s logo was featured on the conservatory’s website.

However, the link to the Del Gesú Foundation was empty. There was barely anything on the internet about a private foundation that made such expensive instruments available to the RBK. The foundation’s location, which turned out to be in Switzerland and Lichtenstein, was then found in an online archive.

But the foundation did not appear in the either country’s company or commercial registers. The only email address to be found seemed to be out of service, and the website was offline. The picture of the Stradivarius and the Del Gesú Foundation logo quickly disappeared from the RWK’s website, and K. backpedaled: in an email, he claimed that he had never used a Stradivarius to promote his school, and that RWK had never cooperated with the foundation.

Instruments as Investments

In 2015 the mysterious foundation appeared as a sponsor of the controversial Aram Katchaturian Violin Competition (AKHIC) in Armenia. A competition brochure featured the same text as the inactive website: with headquarters in Liechtenstein and Switzerland, the foundation considered itself a “supporter of young artists” and acted as an “intermediary between investors and the owners of rare instruments,” which increased in value as a result.

Del Gesú promoted its services in the competition’s glossy brochure as follows: “Nowadays, investment in the fine rare musical is very firm and profitable. It is safe and has great potential. We have very good ties with the leading investors all over the world, in particular in Switzerland, Russia, Asian and Persian Gulf countries.”

Brochure of the Aram-Khachaturian-Violine-Competition in Armenia

In a phone call, an employee of the Armenian music competition revealed that the private foundation also had an office in Armenia. The man behind the competition is none other than Armen Smbatyan, the former minister of culture and currently a presidential advisor. His name has repeatedly been linked to incidents of corruption. Is he also behind the foundation?

Smbatyan’s son Sergey is the principal conductor and artistic director of the State Youth Orchestra of Armenia – which happens to be the official orchestra of the controversial Music Competition. Both, the orchestra and the Khachaturian-Competition foundation, are registered at the same address – namely, the headquarters of the Komitas State Conservatory, which allegedly cooperates with RWK in the awarding of fake diplomas. Until 2002, the father Armen Smbatyan was head of Komitas Conservatory. In 2003, he launched the Khachaturian competition and is still the Chairman of Board of Trustees.

The doubtful Art Management

Swiss Global Art Management, or Swissgart for short, is the second company whose logo was on the RWK website until recently, and which is now trying to cover its tracks. In an interview, Mirza K. stated that the artist agency was “an important partner” that signed talented graduates. However, he was unable to name any of the graduates that the agency took on. When asked to describe what the partnership between the two institutions comprised, both sides suddenly denied any kind of cooperation.

Prominent artists such as the Italian conductor Riccardo Muti and even the Vienna Philharmonic are presented on the agency’s website as clients. However, their representatives know nothing about this. “As you know, Maestro Muti doesn't have a personal manager, nor is he represented by any agency. Any portal or information that suggests he has a manager or an agency is false,”

wrote an employee of Riccardo Muti Music, which owns all the rights to the musician’s images and recordings. The Vienna Philharmonic also reacted to the Swissgart advertisement with surprise. In April 2015, the orchestra performed with Riccardo Muti. “It was a one-time project,” says Harald Krumpöck, the orchestra’s director. There were no joint plans beyond this.

Swissgart states officially that it works together with famous artists and musicians...
...but neither Riccardo Muti nor the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra know about the cooperation.

Swissgart declined to respond to questions on subjects it considered internal matters: “Unfortunately, we are unable to answer any of your questions. Please refrain from contacting Swissgart again.” One artist who is happy to be represented by Swissgart often is Sergey Smbatayan, the young conductor and son of Armen Smbatayan. The Armenian presidential advisor spent 15 years on the executive board of the Komitas State Conservatory in Armenia – with none other than Ino Mirkovic, the managing director of Swissgart.

Ties to offshore companies

Ino Mirkovic founded the Swiss company, which is headquartered in Lucerne. He is an old friend and business partner of K. Mirkovic was previously director of a conservatory in Croatia, which the government closed in 2003. He opened the Swissgart artist agency in 2013. Within just two years, the company moved three times and switched managing directors twice. On both occasions, said directors were employee and owner of a Swiss offshore consultancy named Swiss Financial Yard, that appeared to act as a silent partner.

The company offers assistance for starting offshore companies or transferring money to foreign bank accounts in countries like Switzerland, Singapore or Liechtenstein. On their website, they underline the “wrong” image the media is producing about this form of asset protection, as they call it. The owner of Swiss Financial Yard is an Austrian Citizen named David Paulson. Since the end of 2015, Swiss Financial Yard officially dropped out of Swissgart and Ino und Olivera Mirkovic have been the only managing directors. None of them reacted to our requests.

Showdown in Armenia

In 2015, the Aram Katchaturian Foundation announced a special violin competition in Yerevan. The winner was Iva Miletic – a student of the Richard Wagner Conservatory. While her performance confused music critics, she won USD 15,000 in prize money and a valuable Jean Baptiste Vuillaume violin on loan from the Del Gesú Foundation for a period of one year. At international auction houses, such violins are sold for as much as 200,000 euros. Ino Mirkovic sat on the jury with Igor Petrushevski, a violin professor at Richard Wagner Conservatory and Ina Miletic`s teacher.

Screenshot: Aram-Khatachurian-Competition

In 2014 Armenia’s Ministry of Culture allocated 87.000 US-Dollar directly, and almost 18.000 US-Dollar indirectly to the Khachaturian Competition. In 2015, the ministry financed the Khachaturian Competition by 105.000 US-Dollar and the International Foundation for Humanitarian Cooperation allocated more than 15.000 US-Dollar on top. As a comparison, the Conservatory pays a paltry hourly wage of 3 to 4 US Dollar to its professors based on their titles.

The investigations of the Richard Wagner Conservatory in cooperation with the Armenian investigative newsroom Hetq were financially supported by „Reporters in the Field“ of the Robert-Bosch-Stiftung.