Russian billionaire blames Sotheby’s for bad art deals

New York: Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev told a New York jury that he was a mere novice in the mysterious world of high-end art sales and expected Sotheby’s auction house to protect clients from what he describes as rogue art dealers.

Rybolovlev took the stand last week in his US$232.5mil lawsuit against the famed auction house. Over two days, he gave jurors an inside look at the murky relationship between art dealers, brokers and buyers.

The 57-year-old billionaire alleges that Sotheby’s helped a dealer, Yves Bouvier, overcharge him on four works purchased between December 2011 and November 2014, including Salvator Mundi, a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that set a record for the most expensive artwork ever sold in 2017.

“It makes it difficult for clients like me who have experience in business to know what’s really going on,” he said during testimony last Friday. “It’s not an issue only of money,” he said. “It is important for the art market to be more transparent.”

The dispute between Bouvier and Rybolovlev has played out in civil and criminal courts on three continents over close to a decade before finally ending with a confidential settlement last month. The Russian billionaire is now training his sights on the auction house.

Sotheby’s has said that Rybolovlev’s “gripe” is with Bouvier, not the auction house.

“Throughout Rybolovlev’s testimony, it was patently clear that, as a self-made billionaire with a diverse and expansive network of interests, none of the care and attention to detail he attended to his businesses were given to his art transactions,” Sotheby’s said in a statement.

During often riveting testimony that started last Thursday, Rybolovlev described how he became an art collector – beginning with a Marc Chagall work – simply to fill up blank spots on a wall of his new Geneva home.

“I thought, why not?” Rybolovlev testified through a Russian translator last Thursday.

It was that purchase that led to his first meeting with Yves Bouvier, the Swiss art dealer who Rybolovlev says defrauded him by overcharging him for rare works of art, including the da Vinci.

The billionaire recounted his relationship with Bouvier, who served as his primary dealer until he was arrested upon arriving at Rybolovlev’s Monaco apartment in February 2015 to complete a deal for Mark Rothko’s No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), which the billionaire purchased for €140mil in August 2014.

The two men initially met in 2002 at a tax-free storage facility in Geneva, where Rybolovlev had gone to view the Chagall.

Soon, he said, the two men entered into an agreement where Bouvier would help him acquire works from private owners, acting in his best interests, seeking the best price and collecting a 2% commission. Bouvier has denied they had a formal pact.

The market was “very difficult”, and there were a lot of intermediaries, Rybolovlev said Bouvier told him. In order to get the best prices, Bouvier told the billionaire, he would have to get close to the owners of works – many of whom stored their art in his facilities.

“The closer you are to the owners, the less the price,” Rybolovlev said Bouvier told him.

Rybolovlev said he often delegated decisions to others, and expected Bouvier to negotiate with sellers, research the market and buy or sell pieces. Eventually, the two became friends, with Bouvier attending parties for the billionaire and matches of the Monaco football team he owns.

Rybolovlev claims he didn’t know that Bouvier was buying artworks through Sotheby’s and then turning around to sell them to him at enormous markups. — Bloomberg

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