At Rybolovlev Trial, Sotheby’s Attorney Questions Head of Private Sales – ARTnews.com


Sotheby’s head of private sales Samuel Valette was back on the witness stand Thursday in the civil suit brought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, in which he accuses the auction house of helping bleed him of $1 billion dollars by providing Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier with bloated estimates for blue-chip works. This time, however, it was Sotheby’s attorney Marcus Asner’s turn to question.

Among the more interesting things one notices during the hours spent watching lawyers question witnesses is how two people vibe. On Wednesday, when Valette was questioned by Rybolovlev’s counsel, Daniel Kornstein, the exchange quickly turned antagonistic. Of course, if would be. They are on opposing teams. Valette says he and Sotheby’s are innocent of the accusations brought against them. 

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In Asner’s hands, Thursday’s testimony was a conversation, not an inquisition. During his questioning by Kornstein, Valette often seemed frustrated by the judge’s direction to keep his answers short. On Thursday, he was relaxed, as Asner prompted him to explain the details, like a contract between Sotheby’s and Bouvier’s company Blancaflor Investments, as well as multiple emails between Valette and his colleagues and superiors at the auction house.

Asner’s goal was untying, or at least loosening, the knots that Kornstein was trying to bind Valette down with the day before. This strategy involved walking Valette through many of the same questions Kornstein asked, but worded slightly differently or in a different tone. 

“During the time you spent with Mr. Rybolovlev did you ever tell him that you were his Key Client Manager?” Kornstein asked Valette on Wednesday, referring to an internal term Sotheby’s uses to designate specialists who are assigned to cultivate and manage specific collectors, regardless of whether the collector is aware or if Sotheby’s has ever done business with them.

“No, I didn’t,” Valette said.

“And you didn’t tell anyone else who was with him?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Let’s move on,” Kornstein said.

Asner pursued a similar line of questioning, though, this time, Valette was far more responsive.

“Mr. Kornstein asked why you never told Mr. Rybolovlev about being his KCM?” Asner asked.

“Well, we don’t jump on clients to introduce ourselves,” Valette said. “He was invited [to the viewing] by Mr. Bouvier. There’s no way I’d impose myself upon him. It would be inappropriate.” 

Later, Valette would explain that, however confusing the title, his role as Rybolovlev’s “Key Client Manager” was to build rapport with him over time in the hopes of doing business, and to be familiar enough with Rybolovlev to answer internal questions from his coworkers, many of whom were looking to make a sale. But, since he was already working with Bouvier, Valette explained, it made no sense to pursue Rybolovlev. “It would be like stabbing my client in the back,” he said.

In a prerecorded deposition shown to the jury days earlier, Sotheby’s head of global business Mari-Claudia Jiménez explained that the people assigned to “Key Client Managers” were often aspirational, and that meetings with staff to discuss cultivation plans were often blown off by specialists because they were out drumming up business they could actually get.

There was even a bit of art history and art market basics involved: Throughout the day, Asner asked Valette to explain what Impressionism and Surrealism were and the function of guarantees and irrevocable bids at auction. Asner even got a few laughs.

After asking Valette who owns a work “after you buy it at auction” Valette said looked at him, confused, and said “Me?”

“No, no, not you,” Asner said. “Not me either.”

There was little mention of the fact that during Wednesday’s proceedings Valette admitted to Kornstein that he wasn’t immediately familiar with or hadn’t recently read over certain Sotheby’s policies like the Criteria for Major Valuations.

Asner’s main point, shown though myriad small examples and often punctuated with the phrase “to put a point on it,” was that during each transaction Bouvier made with Sotheby’s through Valette, Bouvier was the principal. He signed the contract, so he was the on the hook for the payment.

It was, notably, one of the first days in which there were no real allegations directed toward the trial’s white elephant, Yves Bouvier. The Swiss dealer did make himself known, however, via a statement released to the media early Thursday morning, via the Swiss law firm Monfrini Bitton Klein.

“Following the debates made in the New York courtroom, and the media coverage they have caused, is like a surreal charade in which people argue over a fraud that was proven to have never happened,” Bouvier said in the statement. “All past decisions around the world, including in the US, have unanimously concluded that I was innocent.”

The statement noted that allegations against Bouvier “have already been tested and disproven in multiple jurisdictions, including Geneva, Singapore, Hong Kong, Monaco and New York.” It also pointed out that, while Rybolovlev claims to have overpaid for works, he never cancelled a sale and made a massive profit when he sold Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which he bought from Bouvier for $127.5 million, at Christie’s for $450.3 million in 2017.

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