One of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious auction houses is being dragged into a bitter and protracted $1 billion legal battle between a Russian billionaire and an international art dealer.
Lawyers for Sotheby’s are preparing for Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian fertiliser and potash salesman, to use the British courts to claim the international auction house helped an art dealer inflate prices of a number of masterpieces he subsequently bought.
Rybolovlev, the 50-year-old businessman and owner of AS Monaco football club, purchased nearly 40 paintings, including works by Da Vinci, Picasso, Rothko, Modigliani and Monet, through Yves Bouvier, a Swiss art dealer. Around a third of them were acquired by Bouvier, 54, at private sales at Sotheby’s.
Now, a New York court has ruled that classified documents between Bouvier and Sotheby’s, understood to include valuations, can be used in the British courts in the latest twist in the so-called Bouvier Affair. Rybolovlev’s lawyers have already tried to bring cases against Bouvier in France, Singapore and Monaco.
Last night, a spokesman for Sotheby’s, which has its headquarters in the United States, said it would “vigorously” fight any action brought by the Russian billionaire, adding that any suggestion it had been involved in fraudulent conduct or a conspiracy was “categorically false”.
In 2015, The Russian businessman, said to be worth more than £5 billion, shocked the international art world by claiming that Bouvier had overcharged him up to £730 million for about 40 works of art. He also claimed Samuel Valette, Sotheby’s vice chairman of private sales, had written bullish assessments of a number of works that Bouvier had forwarded on to him.
Most notably, Bouvier is believed to have bought Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for £$80 million (£58 million) at a private Sotheby’s sale. He then promptly sold it for a reported $127 million (£92 million) to the Russian collector.
Rybolovlev’s claims that he bought that painting at an inflated price suffered a setback of sorts when he sold it on at auction at Christie’s for a record $450 million (£341 million). Inevitably, Bouvier’s lawyers insisted that proved the art dealer had, as he has always claimed, never committed any fraud of any kind in his dealings with Rybolovlev.
The ongoing battle between the two men raises issues surrounding the multi-billion pound art market and what duty, if any, middleman have towards collectors, auction house and sellers.
In effect, the Russian claims Bouvier was acting as his agent and so had a duty not to mark up items he bought for him. Bouver claims he personally bought works of art then sold them on at a profit, with Rybolovlev being one of his best customers because he was eager to amass a world class collection.
It is understood that Bouvier bought works of art from Sotheby’s in his own name, suggesting he was not as acting an agent for a buyer. The auction house claims it had no financial interest or knowledge of what Bouvier did with the art he acquired from them, whom he sold them to nor for how much.
A Sotheby’s spokeswoman said: “Sotheby’s regards the claims intimated against it and its employee to be baseless. Mr Rybolovlev has previously attempted to sue Yves Bouvier in France, Monaco and Singapore and has failed. Sotheby’s has not been a party to any of these prior proceedings.”
She added that involving Sotheby’s in the case was a “tactic” by the Russian to pursue Bovier in another legal jurisdiction.
She said: “If Mr Rybolovlev persists with his attempts to bring a claim against Sotheby’s and its employee in the English court, Sotheby’s will vigorously challenge this, in light of the application which is currently before the Geneva court.”
Both Bouvier and Sotheby’s are keen to see any case heard in a Swiss court, after a Singaporean judge ruled that would be the best location for such a dispute.
However, it is believed that Rybolovlev has lost faith in Switzerland’s justice system after a court in Geneva awarded his ex-wife, Elan, a record £2.6 billion as part of their divorce settlement. That figures was later reduced to £390 million, along with two Geneva properties.