If you’re even nominally interested in art crime, you’ve likely heard of former FBI agent Robert Wittman. The creator of the Bureau’s art crime team, Wittman has a long history recovering stolen works and, as a member of the private sector, teaching the skills required to investigate art-related crime to law enforcement officers and students across the globe.
On Thurdsay, Wittman was called to the stand to give testimony as an expert witness in the Accent Delight International v. Sotheby’s trial currently ongoing in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. For those that haven’t been following, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev sued the auction house through his art-buying surrogate ADI for what he alleges is their complicity in him supposedly getting duped time and again by Swiss art dealer and advisor Yves Bouvier.
During his testimony, Wittman used cases he’d worked in the past in order to break down for the jury the three “indicators of fraud by a dishonest art agent” that he looks for when deciding whether his company will investigate a case. It’s good advice for any collector to follow.
The first indicator is a hard look at the relationship between the agent, also known as an art advisor, and the principal, i.e., the buyer or client. How did they meet? How was trust built? Wittman says this often happens through either a “vouch” or a “bump.” A vouch is just that: the dirty agent finagles an introduction with someone via a trusted friend. In a preliminary investigation it is always a red flag when the vouch gets a cut of the agent’s profits on a deal, Wittman said. The bump, slightly more conniving, involves orchestrating a chance encounter with someone where it’s known they like to spend their time.
The second indicator is how an agent communicates with his client. Does it sound legit, Wittman asks, or are they constantly moving mountains and turning water to wine?
The third involves lookinh at the markup, when an agent charges a significantly higher price than the one negotiated (not including commission) without revealing the price hike to the final buyer.
Wittman said that he was hired by ADI after, as Rybolovlev and ADI allege, they became aware that Bouvier had overcharged the billionaire by $1 billion for 38 works of art over the years. Wittman added that he charges a $50,000 retainer for a detailed investigation and report, followed by $350 an hour for things like expert witness testimony.
“Do you get paid regardless of the outcome?” the plaintiff’s attorney asked. “Oh yes,” replied Wittman with a smile, much to the pleasure of the jury and the journalists in the gallery.
(Bouvier, who is not a party to the ongoing trial, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, has never been convicted of a criminal offense related to his business dealings with Rybolovlev, and in December he and the Russian billionaire reached a settlement over various legal disputes in Switzerland.)
During the second half of the day’s proceedings, Rybolovlev himself took the stand. With the help of a Russian translator—he neither speaks nor understands English—the billionaire spoke about how he came to know Bouvier.
As it happens, the two met through a close family friend of Rybolovlev, a Bulgarian named Tania Rappo who was living in Geneva, where Rybolovlev had just bought a home. Rappo, he said, was one of the only Russian speakers he’d met in Geneva. She helped the family grow accustomed to the city and, later, became godmother to his youngest daughter.
“She was very socially active,” Rybolovlev said via the translator. “One of the first people who came over the house when we bought it. We used to say, she’s so active she could engage a wall in conversation.”
It was Rappo who, through her social circle, helped Rybolovlev buy his first painting, Chagall’s 1968 picture Le Grand Cirque, for the prime spot in his new home. By Rybolovlev’s account, she also helped negotiate the price. When he went with Rappo to view the piece for the first time in Geneva’s Freeport, Bouvier was there.
Shortly after, at Rappo’s prompting, Bouvier was stopping by the house offering his services, Rybolovlev said. “The art market is difficult. There are so many intermediaries,” Bouvier said at the time, according to Rybolovlev. “Direct access is important. The closer you are to the owners, the better the price. I can do that for you because of my storage business at the Freeport.”
According to Rybolovlev, after Bouvier left, Rappo said “Sound interesting, no?”
Bouvier also made an appearance in court, but not in person. A video recording of his deposition, conducted in French, was played for the jury by Rybolovlev’s attorneys, in which Bouvier said he’d met Rappo in 2002, the same year he met Rybolovlev. During the deposition, he said he approached Rappo and offered her a finder’s fee if she could connect the two: six percent of the deals that went through.
Samuel Valette, the London-based Sotheby’s specialist, also popped up during the deposition recording, in which Bouvier said they’d hung out on multiple occasions: a coffee in Paris, a meal on Bouvier’s yacht. Of course, that kind of work/play mingling is part and parcel to the art world. Good luck doing business or getting information about, well, anything, without a dinner or a cocktail involved.
But will that be clear to a jury of average New Yorkers? Unlikely.
It’s worth noting again that Rybolovlev’s ADI is suing Sotheby’s, not Bouvier. Not that Rybolovlev hasn’t tried. In Switzerland, a criminal claim against Bouvier was filed and later dismissed in early December. A case was thrown out of a Monaco appeals court after a judge found that “the investigation had been “conducted in a partial and unfair way,” and, in Singapore, an appeals court found that they didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case.
“The allegations being made against Mr. Bouvier in the New York proceedings have already been rejected by authorities all around the world. Since starting legal action against Mr. Bouvier in 2015, all nine of the court cases filed in Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, Monaco and Geneva have been discontinued by the authorities,” Bouvier’s attorneys, David Bitton and Yves Klein of Monfrini Bitton Klein, Geneva, told ARTnews in a statement.
“The final outstanding investigation into Yves Bouvier’s business dealings with Dmitry Rybolovlev started in Switzerland in 2017 and was closed on 6 December 2023 by the Office of the Attorney General of Geneva. The Geneva Public Prosecutor’s Office stated that it conducted a number of hearings which did not provide any evidence to raise sufficient suspicion against Mr Bouvier. The order of discontinuance of the Swiss criminal proceedings after six years of investigation corresponds under Swiss law to a judgment of acquittal of Mr Bouvier issued by a Swiss court, which has binding authority.”
Editor’s Note, 1/12/2024: This article was updated to include a statement from Yves Bouvier’s attorney, and to include clarifying language around the nature of the allegations made against Bouvier. Additionally, an earlier version of this article stated that the criminal claim against Bouvier in Switzerland was “settled”. ARTnews regrets the error.