Grand Theft Cobalt: Rotterdam

Thieves are pulling off audacious metal heists at Europe’s largest port. They’re even stealing from the Cobalt Jesus.

By Kit Chellel and Mark Burton

A group of bankers, brokers, and journalists was huddled outside a dingy warehouse along the Nieuwe Maas River in Rotterdam on a gray morning last January. All around was the industrial sprawl of Europe’s largest port, a landscape of cranes and colorful shipping containers stacked up like Lego bricks, reversing trucks and squalling gulls.

The building was run by Vollers Group GmbH, a logistics specialist based in Germany. One of its managers, Martijn Wijbrandi, led his visitors inside to get high-viz jackets and a safety briefing. We’ve never had a problem with theft, Wijbrandi said, but it pays to be careful. He pointed out the alarm system, secured by a PIN code. On the warehouse floor, everyone filed past piles of magnesium bricks and bags of coffee to an area walled off by steel sheets that rose almost to the ceiling. A security camera was aimed at the padlocked sliding door.

Wijbrandi gestured to a tattooed young employee in a baseball cap who’d been driving a forklift. The man strolled over to unlock the doors, revealing hundreds of orange and blue drums piled four-high on pallets. Each container was full of chunks of cobalt, a formerly obscure, unwanted metal that got its name from the German kobold, or “goblin,” because it vexed medieval miners who, trying to extract more valuable substances from its ore, were instead rewarded with worthless powder or toxic gas. It’s lately become highly valuable because it prevents the lithium-ion batteries found in mobile phones and electric cars from overheating and bursting into flames. Cobalt’s value surged more than 300 percent from 2016 to its 2018 high, reaching a record of almost $100,000 a ton.

One of the group, Anthony Milewski, broke off to pose for pictures in front of the barrels. Milewski is the founder and chief executive officer of Cobalt 27 Capital Corp., a kind of metal hedge fund that offers investors an indirect way to bet on a battery-powered future. The Kennewick, Wash., native had amassed what’s thought to be the world’s largest private stockpile of the bluish-gray metal—about 3,000 tons, not far behind the largest public reserve, the Chinese government’s—and was hoping to raise money to acquire more. The vast majority of the company’s material was locked away in Rotterdam, including about 76 tons at this facility. He’d arranged the tour to show Cobalt 27’s backers their stash was in safe hands.

An energetic former lawyer with a shaved head, Milewski began buying cobalt in 2015 as a fund manager at Pala Investments Ltd., a firm created by Russian coal and steel billionaire Vladimir Iorich. In 2017, Milewski recapitalized a dormant mining company by issuing shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange and used the funds to purchase Pala’s cobalt in return for about 20 percent of the shares. With that, Cobalt 27 was born. Milewski is so enamored of his chosen commodity that he can summon the latest statistics about cobalt production and electric car usage at will. “I don’t know where I get them from,” he once joked at an industry dinner. “They just come to me. I’m like the Cobalt Jesus.”

Wijbrandi pried open some drums to show visitors what cobalt looks like: cathodes in little squares that were rough and dull on the surface but glittery and jagged underneath. Some of the visitors took samples as souvenirs, and the tour came to an end. Vollers was just one of the companies being paid to look after Milewski’s metal in Rotterdam. There was another site to visit… Read More