Rybolovlev loses lawsuit against Sotheby's

The jury in Manhattan federal court ruled in favor of Sotheby’s on Tuesday, January 30, in the trial against Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. This legal battle dates back to 2015. Rybolovlev accuses the auction house of having helped the Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier to sell him twelve works of art at excessive prices. The Russian oligarch had acquired thirty-eight master works through Bouvier for 2.3 billion euros, which he considers to have overpaid by around 1.1 billion euros.

The trial revolved around four transactions: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, Modigliani’s Head sculpture, Gustav Klimt’s Wasserschlangen II and René Magritte’s Le Domaine d’Arnheim.

Rybolovlev argued that Samuel Valette, the Sotheby’s expert who dealt with Yves Bouvier during the transactions, played a key role in these transactions and knew the identity of the true final buyer. In 2013, Valette reportedly met the Russian oligarch when he brought the Salvator Mundi painting to her Central Park West apartment. Bouvier then allegedly bought it for 76 million euros, then sold it to Rybolovlev for 117 million euros. The latter then sold it at auction at Christie’s in 2017 for 415 million euros, a record price for a painting.

Sotheby’s rejected these accusations, maintaining that it was not aware of either the art dealer’s practices or the identity of the final buyer, who it believed to be Yves Bouvier. Samuel Valette confirmed that he recognized Rybolovlev in the apartment during the sale of Salvator Mundi, but claimed that he did not know that Bouvier was buying on behalf of a third party.

According to Sotheby’s lawyers, the auction house is in no way responsible for what Yves Bouvier did with the works of art after purchasing them. Rybolovlev would, however, be at fault for not having protected himself against the actions of Yves Bouvier, by not having put in writing the terms of their relationship and demanding documents proving the prices that the dealer claimed to pay when purchasing works for its account.

Sotheby’s released a statement stating that“there was a glaring lack of evidence presented by the complainant” and that the final verdict “reaffirms Sotheby’s long-standing commitment to upholding the highest standards of integrity, ethics and professionalism in all aspects of the art market”.

Daniel Kornstein, Rybolovlev’s lawyer, said that “this affair achieved the objective of highlighting the lack of transparency plaguing the art market”. This affair has experienced numerous twists and turns until a settlement agreement was reached very recently between Rybolovlev and Yves Bouvier.

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