Grand Theft Cobalt: Rotterdam

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

Illustration: Sophy Hollington for Bloomberg Businessweek

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.

Months later, on July 9, a worker arrived at the warehouse at about 7 a.m. to open up for the day. He entered a code to unlock the main gate. Nothing seemed amiss until he reached the cobalt section of the warehouse floor and noticed the padlock had been cut. He contacted his boss, who called the police. When officers arrived about an hour later, the only other visible sign of a break-in was a missing recording unit for the security cameras. That, and the drums of cobalt—112 tons of it, worth about $10 million—were gone.

The Minor Metals Trade Association, a London-based industry group Vollers is registered with, made the first public statement about the incident 10 days later. Vollers didn’t comment, citing the ongoing police investigation. When a reporter asked Milewski if Cobalt 27 had been affected, he declined to comment at first. Then in August the company revealed in an earnings statement that it owned 76 of the missing 112 tons. All the metal was insured, Cobalt 27 said, assuring shareholders that the rest of its holdings were safe.

News of the heist spread quickly through the tiny network of people who trade in cobalt. All of them, it seemed, had stories about metal thieves. David Weight, the president of the Cobalt Institute, another industry body, told Bloomberg Businessweek he’d once sent a consignment to the U.S. from Rotterdam in the 1980s and received a note from the buyer in America that read, “Thanks for the gravel.” Someone—Weight never found out who—had taken the lids off the drums, removed the metal, and replaced it. Around the same time, Weight said, armed men held up a freight train en route to South Africa, decoupled the carriages containing cobalt, and towed them away on a separate getaway train.

The Rotterdam case was something different altogether, unprecedented in its scale. Cobalt is tricky to mine, transport, and sell. A typical drum weighs 250 kilograms, making it tough to move unless you’re a forklift operator or an Icelandic strongman. One metal trader told a story about a truck driver in Africa who, he’d heard, stole some cargo and stashed it in the vehicle’s spare tire. Now weighing almost a ton, the wheel sheared off midjourney, rolling down a hill and over a car, killing the occupants.

If thieves do manage to steal it, they’ll encounter a new host of problems: Cobalt can be toxic, so anyone trading it legally typically needs a special license. It can also be of troubling provenance—most of the world’s supply lies in Congo, where child labor and corruption are widespread—meaning the few industrial buyers ask for documentation to establish that it’s from a reputable source. (Cobalt 27 has a policy of sourcing its metal from mines outside Congo, which makes it easier to sell.)

London’s cobalt experts could only speculate on how someone could steal 112 tons of rare metal from a secure warehouse, and Vollers declined to comment for this story. Getting more answers would require a trip to the coastal region of the Netherlands and Belgium that has for centuries been the gateway to European trade and to its criminal underworld. One man in particular could help a reporter navigate the port of Rotterdam, a veteran trader said—“You need to speak to Hans.”

Milewski, CEO of Cobalt 27 Capital, in Rotterdam.

Milewski, CEO of Cobalt 27 Capital, in Rotterdam.
Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Rotterdam was destroyed by the Germans during World War II, but once it was rebuilt it became, for a time, the world’s biggest and most advanced port. Locals joke that it was remodeled by the Nazis. Once seen as the roughhouse younger brother to sophisticated Amsterdam, it’s grown into postindustrial hipness. The town center is immaculate, with edgy modern architecture standing comfortably alongside pockets of colonial-era grandeur. Young residents ride around on bicycles without any sign of the fear, evident in London or New York, of getting run down by motorists. Dutch orderliness is apparent from the moment you stroll through customs at the airport to find your baggage already waiting for you. Yet Rotterdam is still a port, with a port’s lawless side. Just this October, customs officials found 1,300 kilos of cocaine hidden inside a frozen chicken meat shipment. ..Read More