It is the biggest legal fight the art world has ever witnessed: a Russian oligarch, who claims he was ripped off buying multi-million-dollar masterpieces, versus a Swiss art dealer who says it was just business.
Now, after six years of lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions, the tables appear to be turning once more in a saga so dramatic it’s been given a name worthy of a movie script: “The Bouvier Affair.” Russian fertilizer tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev has pursued Swiss art dealer and freeport storage magnate Yves Bouvier around the world for years in various courts, claiming to have been swindled out of $1 billion on 38 exorbitantly priced artworks sold to him by Bouvier over the course of a decade. But in a new twist, Bouvier has told CNN he is preparing his own billion-dollar damage counter suit against Rybolovlev, after taking legal action in Singapore in February, alleging a long-running court battle with Rybolovlev has ruined his businesses and reputation.
The cases so far have kept an army of lawyers and reputation managers employed on either side, as one allegation against another is levied by each party, including claims of intimidation and political intrigue. Fittingly, the tortuous imbroglio also involves some of the most priceless and controversial pieces of art, including the 2013 purchase of what is now the world’s most expensive and enigmatic painting: the “Salvator Mundi,” thought by some to be the work of Leonardo da Vinci despite years of debate over its authenticity — a work on which Bouvier made a markup of more than 50%.
Long believed by others to be a copy or the work of Leonardo’s studio, the “Salvator Mundi” was purchased in 2005 by a consortium of speculative art dealers for under $10,000. Eight years later, after the painting had been restored and declared the work of the Renaissance master, Bouvier bought it for $80 million after enlisting the help of a poker player to beat down the price. The dealer swiftly sold it on for $127.5 million to his then-client, Rybolovlev, via the pair’s offshore vehicles, according to an invoice referred to in court papers, and taking a 1% commission. And while the oligarch later auctioned off the painting for an astonishing $450 million in 2017, to a secret buyer now widely believed to be Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he nonetheless alleges that Bouvier defrauded him — a claim Bouvier denies.