Sotheby’s was cleared Tuesday in Manhattan federal court of claims that they helped Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier defraud Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, in a high-profile civil case that has stretched on weeks.
A jury of ten New Yorkers deliberated for five hours, during which they discussed evidence that included email correspondence between Samuel Valette, who currently serves as the auction house’s head of private sales, and Bouvier. The plaintiff’s lawyer had argued that those emails showed Valette knowingly altering valuations for Bouvier, which the dealer then sent on to Rybolovlev to justify major markups on works he had already purchased.
As is the case for civil cases, the plaintiff was charged with providing “clear and convincing evidence” that Valette, or any of his colleagues at the auction house, knew about Bouvier’s alleged manipulative tactics, which often consisted of emails detailing fierce negotiations with apparently non-existent buyers.
Despite the favorable outcome for Sotheby’s, much of their internal workings and business practices were laid bare during the trial, which offered a rare glimpse into the secretive world of auction house private sales that in recent years make up a large part of Sotheby’s and their competitors’ commissions.
In a statement shared with ARTnews, Daniel Kornstein, lead attorney for Rybolovlev’s company that was named as the plaintiff, Accent Delight International, said that although his side lost the case, they “achieved our goal of shining a light on the lack of transparency that plagues the art market. That secrecy made it difficult to prove a complex aiding and abetting fraud case. This verdict only highlights the need for reforms, which must be made outside the courtroom.”
Throughout the case, Rybolovlev’s attorney’s claimed that his ultimate goal was “greater transparency in the art market.” However, during closing arguments, Sotheby’s attorney Marcus Asner argued that while he agreed that Rybolovlev was taken advantage of, his feud was not with Sotheby’s but with Bouvier, who, while not a party to the trial, was mentioned more than either the plaintiff or defendant during the proceedings.
“We are here in this courthouse in New York City in 2024 because Dmitry Rybolovlev decided to try and make somebody else pay for what happened to him,” Asner said during his closing argument.
The trial marks the end of one of the art world’s longest and most widely-covered feuds. Rybolovlev has accused Bouvier of fraud in multiple jurisdictions across the globe, to little success. His claims against Bouvier in Singapore were dismissed after the court found Switzerland to be a more appropriate jurisdiction for their dispute.
Last year, a similar case in Geneva was dropped by the Public Prosecutor’s Office after the two parties reached a private settlement agreement and Rybolovlev’s attorney’s withdrew the complaint. In a statement the office said after several hearings, there was not sufficient evidence “to retain sufficient suspicions against” Bouvier. However, Bouvier was ordered to pay court fees.
While Rybolovlev bought 38 works over the course of his relationship with Bouvier, only 12 were sourced by Sotheby’s, and only four were admitted into the trial by U.S. District Court Judge Jesse M. Furman: Domaine d’Arnheim by Magritte, Klimt’s Water Serpents II, a sculpture by Modigliani, Tete, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi.
With each of these works, as with every transaction in which Bouvier sold art to Rybolovlev, the Swiss dealer purchased the work through a holding company before passing it on to Rybolovlev at a steep markup. According to Rybolovlev, Bouvier was working for him as an art advisor, a claim Bouvier staunchly denies, though in every transaction he took a commission on the sale on top of the markup, which Rybolovlev has said he did not know about.
Ultimately, Asner argued, Sotheby’s could not be liable for Rybolovlev’s loss in his dealings with Bouvier, because they had no knowledge of and made no profit from Bouvier’s alleged deception. In his closing, Asner pointed out that it was unreasonable for a businessman of Rybolovlev’s stature to have forgone any due diligence during the 12 years he acquired works from Bouvier, to never formalize the alleged agent/principal relationship, or to confirm where his money was going and to whom he was buying from.
“Mr. Rybolovlev,” Asner asked the billionaire when he was on the stand earlier in the trial, “are you familiar with the term ‘the buck stops here’?”