Russian Billionaire Charged Double for Artwork, Accuses Sotheby’s of Fraud

February 6, 2024



Elle Yap

Russian billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev lost a case in New York City on Tuesday after he accused auction house Sotheby’s of art fraud. He claimed the four paintings sold to him were overpriced. Rybolovlev accused Sotheby’s of conspiring with dealer Yves Bouvier, who acted as an art adviser to the billionaire. Bouvier reportedly advised Rybolovlev to buy four different artworks, which Bouvier bought from Sotheby’s and resold at a higher price.

Portrait of Dmitry Rybolovlev. Photo by Francknataf. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The 10-person jury presiding over the case concluded that Sotheby’s was unaware of the scheme. The company’s lawyers said they believed that Bouvier was the buyer, and what he did with the painting after the purchase was not Sotheby’s responsibility. 

The New York Times reported that Sotheby’s cheered the decision due to the billionaire’s lack of evidence. Meanwhile, Rybolovlev’s lawyers stated that his goal was toward exposing the “lack of transparency” in the art world. 

“That secrecy made it difficult to prove a complex aiding and abetting fraud case,” Daniel J. Kornstein, Rybolovlev’s lawyer, said after the verdict was given.

Billionaire Builds His Art Collection

Rybolovlev, who made his fortune selling potash fertilizer, first found himself buying art after purchasing a house in Geneva that had empty walls specifically made for art. During this time, the billionaire acquired over $2 billion worth of art to fill his home. He then engaged Bouvier to help him add to his collection. The two collaborated on the acquisition of 38 works of art between 2002 and 2013. 

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo by Lluís Ribes Mateu. Source: Flickr.

The artwork relevant to the case are “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci, “Water Serpents II” by Gustav Klimt, “The Domain of Arnheim” by Rene Magritte and “Tête” by Amedeo Modigliani. The billionaire tried to submit eleven other works into evidence, which US District Judge Jesse Furman rejected.

Records showed Bouvier bought the da Vinci painting for $83 million in 2013. He promptly sold it to Rybolovlev the next day for $127.5 million. Bouvier also resold “Tête,” a statue by Modigliani, to Rybolovlev for double its €31.5 million ($34 million) price in 2012. 

A Case of Art Fraud?

Bouvier admitted to using tactics like having fictional negotiations with fake sellers to boost interest in artwork. However, he claims that he had been clear that he was working as a dealer and not as an adviser.

Despite the claims of fraud that Rybolovlev has against Sotheby’s, his ownership of the da Vinci painting has been profitable. He resold the painting for a record $450 million to Saudi Arabia Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Despite the hefty price and original plans to show it in a new Louvre gallery in Dubai, experts question its authenticity.

Photo by Zeisterre. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, despite Rybolovlev’s transactions being with Bouvier, the art dealer was not a defendant in the case. Instead, the two of them came to a confidential settlement, with Bouvier not facing criminal charges. As of press time, it is unclear if Rybolovlev plans to pursue an appeal of the case. 

Related reading: LOEWE x Sotheby’s: A Unique Collection of Sustainable Artisanship

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