Criminal inquiry against art dealer Yves Bouvier in US$2b dispute dropped

Bouvier (pictured) was arrested in Monaco in early 2015, following a criminal complaint by Rybolovlev. PHOTO: ST FILE

GENEVA (NYTIMES) - The Geneva public prosecutor's office has dropped its criminal investigation of Yves Bouvier, a Swiss businessman who has been embroiled in a long-running battle with a Russian billionaire and art collector over the acquisition of US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) of artworks.

It was the last outstanding criminal case initiated by the collector, Dmitry E. Rybolovlev, in his dispute with Bouvier in what has been one of the art world's longest and most bitter entanglements - which has been fought in legal jurisdictions around the world, including Singapore, Paris, Monaco and Geneva.

The prosecutor ruled that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with the charges, ending all current criminal proceedings against Bouvier that resulted from the dispute with Rybolovlev.

Calling it "a complete victory," Bouvier said in a statement that the decision "marks the end of a six-year nightmare. For reasons that had nothing to do with my art dealing activities, an oligarch tried and failed to destroy me."

Rybolovlev's attorneys, however, said he intends to appeal. In a statement, his lawyers suggested that the case against Bouvier had not yet been properly judged on its merits - whether Bouvier was acting as an agent for Rybolovlev or as an independent art dealer.

"It is essential that this case, the most serious the art world has ever known, be duly considered and finally judged on its merits," they said.

The messy battle began six years ago after Bouvier helped Rybolovlev buy 38 pieces of world-class art for US$2 billion over a period of about 12 years. These included high-profile works such as Salvator Mundi, a depiction of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.

Rybolovlev has said in court papers that he thought Bouvier was acting as his agent and adviser on the transactions, and he paid Bouvier a fee for his services. But he later discovered, he said, that Bouvier had bought many of the items in advance, then flipped them to him at a markup of $1 billion.

Bouvier insisted in court papers that he was not an agent or adviser and instead, like any art dealer, he was entitled all along to charge Rybolovlev whatever prices he wished for the art he sold to his client and that Rybolovlev was prepared to pay.

Bouvier was arrested in Monaco in early 2015, following a criminal complaint by Rybolovlev. A judge in Monaco's Court of Appeal tossed out all the charges of fraud and money laundering in 2019, after concluding that the investigation of Bouvier had been conducted in a biased and unfair way.

That ruling was upheld by a higher court last year. In the Geneva case, where he also faced charges including fraud and money laundering, the prosecutor cited the Monaco finding, saying it meant he would be denied the right to a fair trial in Geneva, too.

The ruling said the courts in Monaco had found that "the complainants had interfered constantly and inadmissibly in the course of the investigation, thus depriving Yves Bouvier" of the right to a fair trial. Much of the evidence to be used in Geneva was produced by the same investigation.

A separate investigation in Monaco into corruption charges made by Bouvier against Rybolovlev is ongoing. That investigation hinges on questions about whether Rybolovlev used lavish perks to enlist Monaco law enforcement officials as allies in his bitter feud with Bouvier.

Rybolovlev has also taken issue with the role played by Sotheby's in some of the art sales, according to court filings in federal court in Manhattan. Twelve of the 38 paintings were originally bought by Bouvier in sales arranged by Sotheby's, only to be flipped to Rybolovlev. Sotheby's has said it did nothing wrong, and that it was in the dark about Bouvier's intentions.

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