Singapore court to hear $1.4b art suit

Russian billionaire Rybolovlev built an art collection with the help of Swiss freeport magnate Bouvier (below). Mr Bouvier, a Singapore PR, had wanted the dispute to be settled in the Swiss courts.
(Above) Russian billionaire Rybolovlev built an art collection with the help of Swiss freeport magnate Bouvier. Mr Bouvier, a Singapore PR, had wanted the dispute to be settled in the Swiss courts.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Russian billionaire Rybolovlev built an art collection with the help of Swiss freeport magnate Bouvier (below). Mr Bouvier, a Singapore PR, had wanted the dispute to be settled in the Swiss courts.
Russian billionaire Rybolovlev built an art collection with the help of Swiss freeport magnate Bouvier (above). Mr Bouvier, a Singapore PR, had wanted the dispute to be settled in the Swiss courts.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Case between Russian, Swiss set to proceed in international court here, ensuring 'level playing field'

A US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) lawsuit brought by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev against Swiss freeport magnate Yves Bouvier for allegedly inflating the prices of art masterpieces and pocketing the profits is set to play out in the Singapore courts.

The High Court has dismissed an attempt by Mr Bouvier, a Singapore permanent resident, to suspend the civil suit filed here against him by two companies linked to Mr Rybolovlev. Mr Bouvier had argued the dispute should be fought in the Swiss courts.

In a written judgment published on Tuesday, Senior Judge Lai Siu Chiu ruled that the Singapore suit, which was filed in the High Court last March, should proceed. But she said the case should be transferred to the Singapore International Commercial Court - set up in January last year to hear cross-border commercial disputes.

Any perceived advantages to Mr Bouvier, or disadvantages to the plaintiffs, of Switzerland being the forum will be "levelled out" by the transfer, she said.

The crux of the dispute between the two men is whether Mr Bouvier, who helped Mr Rybolovlev amass an art collection, was acting as an agent of the Russian billionaire or whether they had a buyer-seller relationship.

Mr Bouvier runs a storage business, called freeports, in Singapore and Luxembourg for the rich to store art and other valuables.

After they were introduced to each other in 2003, Mr Bouvier helped Mr Rybolovlev acquire 38 works of art through his company MEI Invest.

Mr Rybolovlev, a fertiliser tycoon who owns football club Monaco, bought the art pieces from MEI through companies Accent Delight International and Xitrans Finance, which are owned by his family trusts.

The art pieces, mostly paintings, include works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani and Gauguin.

The Russian contends that in December 2014, he discovered Mr Bouvier had inflated the prices of the art pieces and pocketed US$1 billion, in addition to the commissions he charged.

Mr Bouvier denies he was an agent of Mr Rybolovlev, and contends that he was entitled to mark up the prices as an independent seller. A criminal complaint was filed in Monaco against Mr Bouvier, who was arrested, then released on bail. Investigations are ongoing.

Accent and Xitrans also filed a suit in Singapore against Mr Bouvier for breach of duties as an agent, and for fraudulent misrepresentation by inflating the prices of the art pieces and keeping secret profits. Mrs Tania Rappo, a Bulgarian who plays a subsidiary role in the dispute, was also sued.

Last July, the plaintiffs obtained a Mareva injunction to freeze the assets of the defendants, but this was lifted a month later by the Court of Appeal.

Separately, Mr Bouvier applied for the Singapore suit to be suspended. His lawyer, Senior Counsel Edwin Tong, argued that Switzerland is the appropriate forum to hear the dispute as the art purchases took place primarily in Switzerland and the initial four paintings were governed by agreements subject to Swiss law.

But the lawyer for Accent and Xitrans, Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo, argued that Mr Bouvier lives, conducts his business and owns substantial assets in Singapore. In addition, 22 of the deals, valued at US$1.45 billion, took place between 2009 and 2014 when Mr Bouvier was based in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore court to hear $1.4b art suit'. Print Edition | Subscribe