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The Bouvier Affair: Still Chugging Along

March 9, 2023


Leonardo da Vinci

Last August, it seemed that the infamous Bouvier affair that has rocked the art world since 2015 was coming to a close after Russian oligarch and art collector Dimitri Rybolovlev successfully had a criminal investigation opened in Geneva against Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier. But now, the Russian billionaire wants to expand the feud and take the fight to others allegedly involved, namely the auction house Sotheby’s. And according to a recent ruling by a New York judge, he just might get his wish.

In summary, since 2015, Rybolovlev has accused Bouvier of having charged excessive fees when acting as his agent in acquiring his impressive art collection between 2003 and 2014. According to the Russian oligarch, Bouvier agreed that he would only take a 2% fee, but in many cases, he managed to swindle him out of as much as 40%. The most prominent example is that Bouvier purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi allegedly on Rybolovlev’s behalf for $75 million. However, he turned around and charged Rybolovlev $127.5 million. Rybolovlev alleges that Bouvier had stolen about $1.1 billion over the years from him. Bouvier, of course, denies all of this, saying that he did not act as his agent but as an independent dealer and could determine the profit margins he wanted.

But now Bouvier isn’t enough for Rybolovlev. The Russian billionaire is still going after Sotheby’s, after hitting them with a $380 million lawsuit in 2018 for allegedly aiding and abetting Bouvier in his “fraud and breach of fiduciary duty”. He claims that Sotheby’s helped Bouvier defraud him, listing thirty-eight different transactions between 2004 and 2014 where the Russian billionaire alleges the auction house knew of Bouvier’s plans to overcharge Rybolovlev. Last week, Judge Jesse Furman of the district court for the Southern District of New York dismissed many of the claims Rybolovlev had put forth, stating that the time to submit some of those claims had lapsed. However, some of Rybolovlev’s claims still stand, including the claims pertaining to Bouvier’s purchase of René Magritte’s Le Domaine d’Arnheim (purchased by Bouvier in December 2011), Gustav Klimt’s Wasserschlangen II (purchased by Bouvier in September 2012), Amedeo Modigliani’s Tête (purchased by Bouvier January 2013), and Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (purchased by Bouvier in May 2013). According to Rybolovlev’s legal team, “our remaining claims account for over $200 million of damages inflicted to our clients. These are very important episodes of the case, and we are looking forward to jury trial.” Similarly, Sotheby’s legal team stated it “will continue to defend this case vigorously and looks forward to prevailing on the remainder of the case at trial.” Judge Furman, being caught in the middle of all this, urged caution, warning that “the parties should try to settle this case without the need for a trial that would be expensive, risky, and potentially embarrassing to both sides.”

According to a letter submitted to the court, both legal teams have since entered into mediation.