MOSCOW -- A speeding hearse pulled over by Russian police was found with more than half-a-ton of illegal black caviar stashed in the coffin it was carrying.
The hearse was stopped Monday night on a highway near Khabarovsk, a city close to the Chinese border, police said in a statement. When officers inspected the vehicle, which was a converted minibus, they found pots filled with black caviar hidden under branches that are used in Russian funeral rituals.
Police then cracked open the coffin, which was wrapped in pink frilly cloth, and discovered 550 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of caviar.
"On further examination of the bus, it became clear that there was no deceased body in the back," the police statement read. "But in the coffin, police officers uncovered sealed containers of caviar wrapped in thermal packaging."
The two men driving the hearse, which belongs to a local funeral home, claimed they were unaware the coffin was full of fish eggs. They told police a man they did not know had asked them to pick up the body of a recently deceased woman and transport it to a local morgue. They said the man had promised to pay them $400. Police are now investigating.
It is illegal in Russia to privately harvest or sell black caviar, which comes from the endangered sturgeon fish. Russia imposed the ban in 2002 in an effort to halt overfishing. Only state-owned farms are now permitted to sell the delicacy. For a time, the ban spawned a lucrative black market, supported by widespread poaching. Although farming has now improved stocks, black caviar is still very expensive, going for as much as $1,000 per kilo in London.
Ramin Rohgar, who runs Imperial Caviar, a specialist caviar supplier in London, said the price on the legal market for one variety of black roe produced near Khabarovsk could be as much as $400 per kilo. At that price the smuggled haul could be worth as much as $200,000.
"That's a huge amount of caviar," said Rohgar. He doubted it was possible to acquire so much caviar from poaching, noting that it was most likely stolen from legitimate Chinese caviar farms, some of which are located close to the border.
"I don't think it's logistically impossible. You'd need a factory," Rohgar said. "All it can be is that they’ve raided some warehouse."
The black market in caviar has shrunk since its heyday a decade ago, when it was compared to the drugs trade, and much of the poaching that threatened the extinction of the sturgeon has now been stamped out. Yet smuggling continues, with Russian police in the far east periodically seizing lorry-loads of caviar.
Russia's undertaker industry is also not known for its transparency. Officials estimate as much as 60 percent of burials are done by unlicensed and amateur undertakers, who sometimes bribe ambulance workers to give them a head start on reaching the deceased.
Still, several funeral homes contacted in Khabarovsk said they believed the incident was a first.