What Geneva’s Art King Lost in Battle With Russian Billionaire

  • Spat with billionaire Rybolovlev runs from Monaco to Singapore
  • Battle has forced Bouvier to suspend Shanghai free port

As he described the two-year legal battle with the man who had been his best client, art dealer Yves Bouvier contemplated the damage that has left him down by nearly $1 billion.

“When something like this happens in your life, your outlook on life and on people changes, as do your priorities,” Bouvier said in an interview. “As to the future, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Yves Bouvier

Photographer: Jerome Chatin/EXPANSION/REA/Redux

Bouvier, a minority shareholder in the Geneva Free Ports, created a network of tax-free art storage warehouses in Singapore and Luxembourg while discreetly acquiring dozens of works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Amedeo Modigliani to sell to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. Then, in February 2015, he was arrested on fraud charges by a team of eight Monaco police officers outside a seafront mansion owned by the Russian.

The fight between the two men has spurred a debate across the art world about whether Bouvier acted illegally or simply benefited from the lack of transparency in the art market, allowing him to generate enormous profits from his deals with the Russian. In the roughly $60-billion-a-year business of fine art, a central question has become what duty, if any, middlemen have toward collectors or sellers.

Rybolovlev, who made his fortune when he sold two Russian fertilizer producers in 2010 and 2011 for almost $7.5 billion, says Bouvier overcharged him by about $1 billion for a series of paintings that now make up one of the world’s great 20th century collections. Rybolovlev contends that Bouvier had a fiduciary duty to act in his clients’ interest, but instead misrepresented the prices at which he was able to secure paintings. That amounted to hidden markups of tens of millions of dollars on several canvases, Rybolovlev says.

For a QuickTake explainer on legal battles in the art world, click here

Lost Revenue

Bouvier says there was no broker-client relationship between the two men and that Rybolovlev was merely a good repeat customer who willingly paid top dollar. Bouvier says that as a result of the hit to his reputation he’s foregone “many hundreds of millions of dollars” in revenue from art deals in each of the past two years as his networks dried up, leaving him with "insignificant" revenue from dealing art.

“Today, I can no longer discreetly buy a painting,” said Bouvier, 53, dressed in jeans and a blue-and-gray merino wool hoodie, after tucking into a lunch of leeks, steak tenderloin and fries at Geneva’s Hotel Kempinski. “Before, if I wanted to buy a canvas, people dealt with me normally. Now, after what’s happened, they’re twice as difficult to negotiate with or they don’t even want to negotiate with me because they’re afraid.”

In Monaco, the criminal probe is entering its third year and is now under a new investigating magistrate. Ron Soffer, his Paris lawyer, said in a separate exchange that he’s confident Monaco will decide not to formally charge Bouvier and close the case.

Rybolovlev also sued the dealer in a civil action in Singapore, where Bouvier is a resident, initially resulting a freeze of as much as $500 million of Bouvier’s assets in March 2015. That injunction was reversed five months later by the Singapore Court of Appeal. Judges there are set to deliberate at the end of this month on whether Singapore is the appropriate jurisdiction for the case.

A spokesman for Rybolovlev, who lives in Monaco, declined to comment for this story.

Questioned in Monaco

Over two days last month at Monaco’s Palais de Justice, across the square from Prince Albert II’s 13th century castle home, Bouvier met with Morgan Raymond, who is leading that probe. Bouvier said it was the first time he had been questioned by a magistrate since he spoke to police at the time of his arrest. “He asked me fair questions and I answered all of them to the best of my knowledge,” Bouvier said. Raymond declined to comment through his clerk.

Prosecutors in Geneva also looked into Bouvier’s affairs after Monaco magistrates asked for assistance in early 2015, said Jean-Bernard Schmid, who led the Geneva probe. Bouvier’s offices at his art storage company Natural LeCoultre SA, which is based at the Geneva Free Ports, were searched and his Geneva bank accounts were briefly frozen. However, there wasn’t jurisdiction to pursue a case given the alleged wrongdoing happened elsewhere, nor were there grounds to pursue him for suspected money-laundering in Geneva without proof of wrongdoing, Schmid said.

However, there were no grounds to pursue a case against Bouvier for suspected money-laundering, the only possible charge against him in the affair, Schmid said.

No matter how things play out, Bouvier’s future in the art business will not be easy, said Karen Sanig, head of art law at Mishcon de Reya London, who isn’t involved in the case. "Given that Bouvier’s reputation may have suffered following a very public spat about art dealing, it could be difficult for him to be considered as the first port of call in a private art deal," she said.

Bouvier is a majority shareholder in both the Luxembourg and Singapore free ports. Bouvier declined to say if those businesses have been hurt by the scandal. A few customers had left the Geneva Free-Ports, the facility’s president said last year.

Philippe Dauvergne, chief executive officer of the Luxembourg free port, said the scandal cast a shadow over the December 2014 opening of the site.

“Right away it had an impact, and so we didn’t begin as we had hoped,” Dauvergne said in an telephone interview. The Luxembourg Free Port is about 75 percent full and should become profitable over time as the loans required to finance its construction are paid off, he said.

Suspending Projects

Bouvier said his love has always been developing new centers, but he may no longer have that choice. He’s had to suspend other projects including a planned free port in Shanghai.

Before their falling out, Bouvier had commissioned art historians and critics to compile a 600-page guidebook to 40 paintings he had sold over the years to Rybolovlev. He said he planned it as a gift to his erstwhile client to celebrate the collection, but it remains ungiven.

“The opportunity to buy masterpieces, sell masterpieces, create this collection - that’s something you can only do once in your life,” Bouvier said.

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