While the tone during Friday’s proceedings in the civil suit brought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev remained collegial—after all, Sotheby’s attorney Marcus Asner was questioning the house’s head of private sales Samuel Valette for the second day—the questioning was decidedly more aggressive.
While Asner’s questions were nominally directed at Valette, it was clear that his real target was Yves Bouvier, the Swiss art dealer who Rybolovlev has accused of overcharging him by $1 billion, with Sotheby’s help, on blue-chip art purchased between 2010 and 2014.
Bouvier, who is not a party to the ongoing trial, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in his dealings with Rybolovlev. Courts in Hong Kong, Monaco, Singapore, and elsewhere have declined to hold a trial against Bouvier or dismissed charges against him. In December, the Geneva Public Prosecutor’s Office closed its case against Bouvier after he and Ryblovlev reached an agreement and the Russian billionaire withdrew the criminal complaint.
Still, evidence shown in court Friday seemed too blatant to call his dealings with Rybolovlev, or his business manager Mikhail Sazonov, above board.
In one example, an email presented to the jury from Bouvier to Sazonov dated Nov. 21, 2011, Bouvier said he had been negotiating with the owner of Rene Magritte’s Le Domaine d’Arnheim, and was fighting hard to get them down from their original asking price, $60 million. In the same email chain Bouvier asks if he is authorized to propose more than $40 million and says that a number as low as $42 million was “mission impossible.”
“I proposed $43.5 million with a deadline,” Bouvier wrote, adding that he’d wave his 2% fee if Rybolovlev still thought the picture too expensive.
But, according to testimony from Valette and emails shown to the jury, the sellers, who like Bouvier were negotiating through Sotheby’s, asked for $25 million, not $60 million. In fact, the seller had set the $25 million price, after two unsuccessful attempts by another Sotheby’s specialist, Hubert D’Ursel, to secure the sale at between $5 million and $9 million.
Two days later, Valette and Bouvier exchanged emails planning to visit the owner of the picture in Brussels, seemingly confirming that Bouvier had not yet bought it. Then, on November 25, an internal Sotheby’s email was sent confirming that the deal to purchase the picture had been done for $22.5 million, after negotiations with Bouvier’s advisor and surrogate Jean-Marc Peretti. Asner then presented to the jury the contract for the Domaine d’Arnheim, signed by both Valette and Bouvier, with a sale price of $22.5 million.
Asner also took great care in showing that not once, in any of the transactions he presented between Bouvier and Rybolovlev, did Valette correspond directly with the Russian billionaire or his business manager, arguing in effect that there was no connection between Sotheby’s and Rybolovlev. He then drove the point home by asking Valette whether he would have handled the transaction any differently if the price for the Domaine d’Arnheim had been higher, or if Bouvier had been acting as an agent or advisor for someone else.
“No, I would have done the exact same thing. That’s my job,” Valette said.
Further evidence against the theory that Valette and Bouvier were in cahoots came later in the day. According to Valette, in 2014, Bouvier expressed interest in buying Modigliani’s Nude on a Blue Cushion from billionaire hedge-funder Steve Cohen. Cohen had placed the work with art dealer Bill Aquavella and Bouvier tasked Valette with organizing a viewing at the Swiss freeport. When Valette reached out to Acquavella, the dealer told him he wouldn’t consign the work with Sotheby’s. He’d already shipped the picture to the Swiss freeport where a potential buyer was waiting. Valette told Bouvier as much and the latter was furious that Valette had failed to get to the picture first.
“I asked him point blank if he was the buyer in the freeport and he said quite explicitly that he wasn’t involved,” Valette testified.
A year later, Valette learned that Bouvier was indeed the buyer and had quickly flipped the painting to Rybolovlev for an additional $18 million.
When ARTnews reached out to Bouvier’s representatives at Monfrini Bitton Klein for comment on the alleged Domaine d’Arnheim negotiations, an attorney supplied the same statement that was released to the press on Thursday in which Bouvier wrote, “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. All past decisions around the world, including in the US, have unanimously concluded that I was innocent.”
Editors note: a previous version of this story failed to mention that the case brought by Rybolovlev against Bouvier in Switzerland was, according to the Public Prosecutor’s office, the two parties reached an agreement, after which the plaintiffs withdrew their criminal complaint, and both parties agreed to a dismissal.