$1B feud involving Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ reveals dark side of the art world
01 Jun 2021

By Nina dos Santos, CNN, 30 May 2021

CNN — It is the biggest legal fight the art world has ever witnessed: a Russian oligarch, who claims he was ripped off buying multi-million-dollar masterpieces, versus a Swiss art dealer who says it was just business.

Now, after six years of lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions, the tables appear to be turning once more in a saga so dramatic it’s been given a name worthy of a movie script: “The Bouvier Affair.”

Russian fertilizer tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev has pursued Swiss art dealer and freeport storage magnate Yves Bouvier around the world for years in various courts, claiming to have been swindled out of $1 billion on 38 exorbitantly priced artworks sold to him by Bouvier over the course of a decade.

But in a new twist, Bouvier has told CNN he is preparing his own billion-dollar damage counter suit against Rybolovlev, after taking legal action in Singapore in February, alleging a long-running court battle with Rybolovlev has ruined his businesses and reputation.

The cases so far have kept an army of lawyers and reputation managers employed on either side, as one allegation against another is levied by each party, including claims of intimidation and political intrigue.

Fittingly, the tortuous imbroglio also involves some of the most priceless and controversial pieces of art, including the 2013 purchase of what is now the world’s most expensive and enigmatic painting: the “Salvator Mundi,” thought by some to be the work of Leonardo da Vinci despite years of debate over its authenticity — a work on which Bouvier made a markup of more than 50%.

Long believed by others to be a copy or the work of Leonardo’s studio, the “Salvator Mundi” was purchased in 2005 by a consortium of speculative art dealers for under $10,000. Eight years later, after the painting had been restored and declared the work of the Renaissance master, Bouvier bought it for $80 million after enlisting the help of a poker player to beat down the price. The dealer swiftly sold it on for $127.5 million to his then-client, Rybolovlev, via the pair’s offshore vehicles, according to an invoice referred to in court papers, and taking a 1% commission. And while the oligarch later auctioned off the painting for an astonishing $450 million in 2017, to a secret buyer now widely believed to be Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he nonetheless alleges that Bouvier defrauded him — a claim Bouvier denies.

Rybolovlev declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokesperson for Dmitry Rybolovlev’s family entities told CNN: “These matters are being fought in the courts where we expect to prove what happened and that Bouvier’s fanciful story is false. For now, what is most notable is what Bouvier does not dispute: as an art adviser, he pretended to help his clients assemble an art collection at a cost of $2 billion while secretly reaping half of that price for himself.”

Yet Bouvier does dispute he was ever an “art adviser,” a matter that has at been at the heart of the litigation and allegations by Rybolovlev of breach of trust.

“I am an art dealer,” he told CNN. “The contracts prepared by Rybolovlev’s lawyers and all my invoices explicitly described me as ‘the seller.’

“Rybolovlev has never managed to convince a single judge or prosecutor otherwise, in any jurisdiction, for the very simple reason that his allegations do not match the reality of our contractual relations.”

The saga of the legal battle encompasses many of the problems regulators have identified with the soaring global art market — art, in the wrong hands, has become yet another commodity to move money with little accountability.

The “Salvator Mundi,” meanwhile, hasn’t been seen since the record-breaking sale. But it has been back in the headlines after a French documentary claimed in April that the painting had been at the center of a diplomatic spat between Paris and Riyadh, amid doubts over its authenticity and a request by the kingdom that it be shown in the Louvre.

CNN reached out to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for comment but is yet to receive a response.

In the documentary, “The Savior for Sale,” an anonymous high-ranking French official claims that Prince bin Salman was adamant that the “Salvator Mundi” be displayed next to the “Mona Lisa” in order to solidify its place as an authentic Leonardo — despite ongoing questions about whether the work is entirely by the Italian master.

The French government ultimately decided not to exhibit the painting under the Saudis’ conditions, which the anonymous official says in the film “would be akin to laundering a piece that cost $450 million.” Even with the painting out of the public eye, art historians and experts have continued to debate whether the “Salvator Mundi” is an autograph Leonardo or whether he merely contributed to a painting that was predominantly executed by his workshop. The difference could affect its value by hundreds of millions of dollars, given that there are fewer than 20 authenticated Leonardo paintings in the world.

A true Leonardo?

It seems that even those seeking to profit from the painting had doubts about its authenticity.

Emails shared with CNN by Bouvier appear to show communication between Bouvier and a representative of Rybolovlev in which the dealer advised his client in 2013 that the work was a thing of beauty but not a good investment. It was so heavily restored, the dealer wrote, that experts doubted the work was entirely completed by Leonardo himself, and neither the Vatican nor any major world museum had expressed interest in acquiring it.

“The hands are the best-preserved bits,” reads Bouvier’s email, dated March 22, 2013, while “the rest of it has largely been restored.”

In another email, Bouvier writes that any “buyer who acquires this painting that no one wants at too high a price will be seen as a ‘pigeon’ and become the laughing stock of the market and will lose credibility,” given the “very low original proportion that appears to have been painted by the hand of Leonardo himself.”

Bouvier nonetheless arranged to borrow the “Salvator Mundi” (with a $63 million deposit, he said) from Sotheby’s. He claims he then arranged for it to be delivered to the Russian’s penthouse in Manhattan in a “black document holder.”

Antoine Vitkine, the filmmaker who spent two years producing the recent documentary, told CNN he was taken aback to learn that Bouvier, who began his career as an art world outsider, was among those to cast doubt on the painting’s credentials given that more prominent experts have authenticated the “Salvator Mundi.”

“That’s extraordinary,” Vitkine said, adding that he thinks some prominent art historians who have risked their reputation on the “Salvator Mundi” were more lax than they would normally be when it comes to weighing in on a rediscovered painting.

Among those to throw their weight behind the attribution to Leonardo was the UK’s National Gallery, which exhibited the “Salvator Mundi” in 2011 and catapulted it into the global spotlight. The painting’s unveiling was, at the time, widely covered by the press, including CNN.

“You have to remember, so many people have a stake in this work,” Vitkine said.

A bitter back and forth

Bouvier has always denied the charges of fraud leveled against him by Rybolovlev, who has seen his own share of tabloid controversy, including a headline-grabbing divorce and the purchase of an eye-wateringly expensive property from Donald Trump years before the former president took office.

The Russian oligarch, who is president and co-owner of AS Monaco Football Club, is fighting charges in relation to a bribery scandal of Monegasque officials in connection with the Bouvier litigation, in a case dubbed “Monacogate” by the French-language press.

Lawyers for Rybolovlev said in a statement “As far as these allegations are concerned, Dmitriy Rybolovlev remains presumed innocent. He is completely confident about the outcome of this case, in which, after more than three and a half years of investigation, no convincing evidence against him could be found.”

In the last six years, Bouvier has fended off legal action in Monaco, Singapore and Hong Kong. A $380 million suit, launched by Rybolovlev against Sotheby’s for allegedly helping Bouvier inflate his prices is still ongoing in New York. That litigation sprang back into the public domain on May 7, when Rybolovlev’s legal team amended their complaint for the first time in two years to include the sale of a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painting on behalf of Rybolovlev by Sotheby’s via Bouvier, claiming it was hard to recoup the price paid on the work because of its inflated value. Rybolovlev also claimed in the amended complaint he was not paid the $9.5 million the auction house owed him over the sale. Sotheby’s is contesting the claim.

The onslaught of litigation has, according to Bouvier, turned his life upside down. “I used to be an entrepreneur, someone with many businesses and a family firm built up over 50 years,” he told CNN.

“Since all this started, all I’ve done is spent my time defending myself in court and my reputation in the press,” said Bouvier, who admits he made $40 million by flipping the “Salvator Mundi” in two days.

Text messages presented in the French documentary — not independently confirmed by CNN — appear to show Bouvier claiming to Rybolovlev’s aides that he couldn’t secure him a better price than the amount the Russian eventually paid.

“That’s a very good deal for my company. I’m not going to complain,” said Bouvier when asked about the large difference.

“You have to understand what this was like,” said Bouvier. “I was blacklisted by the auction houses, the banks wouldn’t extend credit (to me, and) I had to start selling off assets to keep my staff and my businesses.”

Bouvier claims he has been spied upon and followed by various individuals he does not know. Via a representative of his own he shared with CNN an 81-page private investigation he appears to have shared with prosecutors in Geneva, codenamed “Buldog” which he had commissioned from a Swiss security firm named 4CTM. Beyond concluding he had been tailed by a group of men the firm believed to be British as part of a “very big budget operation,” the report was not able to further identify the people allegedly tailing Bouvier. Asked by CNN about the alleged surveillance, Rybolovlev’s representative had no comment.

CNN reached out to 4CTM security for comment on their report but is yet to receive a response.

Exploiting the art world’s opacity

To author and filmmaker Ben Lewis, whose 2019 book “The Last Leonardo” details the drama surrounding the “Salvator Mundi,” the public fight between Bouvier and Rybolovlev lifts the veil on the art market’s ugly side.

“The Bouvier Affair is a classic example of what can go wrong in the secretive, opaque, and — in inverted commas — discreet art market,” said Lewis during an interview with CNN in London, who notes that parts of the art world have developed a rocky reputation for its way of doing business.

“Opacity, lack of transparency, greed, tax evasion, money laundering, art historical dishonesty, dissembling, disingenuousness, corruption. I mean, where does it end?”

Read more at CNN

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