Billionaire Rybolovlev Is Dealt a Blow in Art-Fee Battle

  • Singapore court stays case, saying Switzerland is better forum
  • Russian art buyer claims Swiss dealer Bouvier hid mark-ups

Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev lost one path for recovering hundreds of millions of dollars he claims his art dealer swindled from him after a Singapore court ruled that the island-state isn’t the right place to hear the case.

Singapore’s Court of Appeal issued a stay to the lawsuit by companies controlled by Rybolovlev against Yves Bouvier, who helped the Russian fertilizer magnate build a collection of close to 40 works by da Vinci, Rothko, Modigliani, Klimt and Picasso. In its decision, the court sided with Bouvier, saying that Switzerland is "distinctly a more appropriate forum than Singapore for the determination of the parties’ dispute."

Dmitry Rybolovlev

Photographer: Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images

Rybolovlev has accused Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer who runs tax-free free port storage facilities from Geneva and Luxembourg to Singapore, of overcharging him by as much as $1 billion for the works over a decade.

“The court has been clear -- Singapore is not the appropriate forum for this case. Now the plaintiffs have to decide whether to start again and initiate legal action outside of Singapore,” Ron Soffer, lead counsel for Bouvier, said in an emailed statement.

Complex International Litigation

"The decision contains no findings on the substance of the case and merely constitutes another procedural incident in this complex international litigation," Sergey Chernitsyn, a spokesman for Rybolovlev’s family office, wrote in an email. "It opens a new avenue for litigation in Switzerland."

The Singapore court noted that while its view was that judges in Switzerland would have jurisdiction, if the courts in that country decided the contrary, Rybolovlev would be able to ask that the stay in Singapore be lifted.

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.

Bouvier was briefly arrested in Monaco in February 2015 in connection with a criminal complaint Rybolovlev filed against him there. The Russian accused Bouvier of repeatedly charging hidden markups, betraying the trust Rybolovlev had placed in him as an agent. Bouvier and his lawyers have countered in interviews and court documents that the two engaged in hard-nosed business discussions between a seller and a good repeat buyer willing to pay market prices for top works.

Bouvier is still under investigation by authorities in the U.S. and Monaco. The Justice Department opened an investigation last year, according to people familiar with the matter. In January, Bouvier met with the magistrate leading the Monaco investigation.

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