At Large  January 10, 2024  Rebecca Schiffman

Trial Begins in Russian Billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev's Case Against Sotheby's

Francknataf via Wikimedia Commons

Dmitry Rybolovlev

At a Manhattan federal court on Tuesday, January 9, the trial began in a case in which Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev is suing Sotheby's for aiding and abetting the Swiss art dealer and art adviser Yves Bouvier in committing fraud against Rybolovlev by overcharging him by $1 billion in the acquisition of dozens of works of art. Mikhail Sazonov, the former chief financial officer for Rybolovlev’s family office, testified.

The trial is connected to the 2018 civil lawsuit by plaintiffs Accent Delight International Ltd and Xitrans Finance Ltd, the British Virgin Islands-based companies through which Rybolovlev acquired the works in question.

In defense against Rybolovlev's claims, Sotheby’s has stated, in documents that have been filed in the case, that the auction house was not aware of any wrongdoing regarding the alleged overcharging tied to the purchase of the works in question. 

There are four artworks in question in this trial: the famed and alleged Leonardo da Vinci work, Salvator Mundi, which became the most expensive artwork in the world when it sold for $450.3 million (and even inspired a film: The Lost Leonardo). The other works are René Magritte’s Le Domaine d’Arnheim, Gustave Klimt’s Wasserschlangen II, and Amedeo Modigliani's sculpture, Tête, which sold for $83 million.

Rybolovlev, who is ranked one of the richest men in the world, claims that Sotheby’s worked with Bouvier, who he says tricked him into thinking he was only acting as his adviser and working on getting the best price for many works, only to find out later that Bouvier was, in fact, not only the adviser but also the seller of the works, and increasing the prices by millions of dollars over the price that he (Bouvier) initially paid. 

The matter with Bouvier, who is not a defendant in this case, began years ago. Bouvier was arrested in June 2015 on fraud charges and there ensued a nearly decade-long battle between Rybolovlev and Bouvier that saw the parties sparring in jurisdictions around the world, and which ended in settlement in December 2023. Now the case with Sotheby's continues.

Rybolovlev has tried another strategy in the case against Sotheby’s, as the auction house was involved in many of the sales. Court documents filed by Rybolovlev’s lawyers claim that Sotheby’s assisted in the scheme with Bouvier, providing Bouvier with appraisals that helped him create inflated price estimates for the artworks. 

Plaintiffs allege that Sotheby’s "aided and abetted Bouvier in committing fraud" by providing "substantial assistance to Bouvier in connection with [Rybolovlev’s] acquisition of fifteen works of art for which they paid in excess of $1 billion — hundreds of millions more than Bouvier had paid.”

Sotheby’s has denied the claims saying in court papers, “At trial, the plaintiff will have to prove that Sotheby’s somehow knew that Bouvier was lying to Mr. Rybolovlev about what he, Bouvier, paid for the art when he bought it. But there’s zero evidence that Sotheby’s knew that Bouvier was lying.”

The trial is set to last two to seven weeks (unless the parties decide to settle out of court) and Rybolovlev is expected to testify next week.

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