Billionaire's Da Vinci Sale Creates Headache for Court

(Bloomberg) -- The record price a Leonardo da Vinci canvas fetched at an auction Nov. 15 in New York may have a downside for its seller, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

An unidentified buyer agreed to pay $450.3 million, including fees, for Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” at a Christie’s auction in New York, obliterating the previous record set by a Pablo Picasso work in 2015. And it far outstripped the $127.5 million Rybolovlev paid Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier for the canvas in 2013.

Billionaire's Da Vinci Sale Creates Headache for Court

Yet the cash could complicate Rybolovlev’s legal quest to prove he was overcharged by about $1 billion on a collection of 40-plus paintings he bought from Bouvier.

Rybolovlev in 2015 filed a complaint in Monaco, where he lives, accusing Bouvier of fraudulently misrepresenting the prices he paid to secure works by Picasso, Claude Monet and others, and then massively overcharging the Russian over a decade for the paintings. Bouvier, who developed a network of tax-free port storage facilities in Geneva, Luxembourg and Singapore, denies any wrongdoing and says he was merely charging market prices to a good repeat customer determined to build one of the world’s top art collections.

“For Bouvier, this is very good news, as he can relax more and claim ‘I advised Rybolovlev well and didn’t overcharge him, look at this current result,’” said Thomas Stauffer, a partner at Zurich-based art advisory firm Gerber Stauffer. “And this gives the lawyers for Rybolovlev something of a headache.”

Puzzling Sales

“This proves the masterpieces sold to the Rybolovlev group were priceless,” Ron Soffer, Bouvier’s Paris-based lawyer, said by telephone.

Yet other sales haven’t been as successful. Rybolovlev sold five paintings he’d bought from Bouvier at a Christie’s auction in March for a loss of some $150 million, leaving art experts puzzled as to why he’d sell so many at once.

Billionaire's Da Vinci Sale Creates Headache for Court

“The record-breaking sale of Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ has helped restore some of the value of the collection,” said Sergey Chernitsyn, an adviser to Rybolovlev. “This is a welcome development for Rybolovlev family trusts as we undertake legal proceedings to address the shocking alleged fraud committed by Yves Bouvier who deceived the family, all while pretending to be a friend and advisor.”

Rybolovlev’s case against Bouvier won’t be affected by the price the Da Vinci fetched, Chernitsyn said.

"We are not arguing the price of the paintings bought with the assistance of Bouvier," Chernitsyn said. "We are arguing in the court the methods he has used to get the fraudulent profit hidden from his client."

The final price included a buyer’s premium, which is a fee paid by the winner to the auction house. Christie’s wouldn’t disclose what the seller’s fees were, if any. Chernitsyn declined to comment on that issue.

Complicating Complaints

Complicating Rybolovlev’s claim are two separate complaints recently brought against the Russian. Swiss prosecutors are examining a criminal complaint filed by Bouvier against Rybolovlev in September, alleging that he and his lawyer had “unusual contacts” with Monaco officials before Bouvier’s arrest in January 2015 that “involved a clear breach of official secrecy and active bribery.” That complaint is based in part on friendly text messages between his lawyer, Tetiana Bersheda, and Monaco officials, discovered by a Monaco judge.

The judge was investigating a separate complaint by Tania Rappo, a Bulgarian resident of Monaco who had introduced Bouvier to Rybolovlev, that Bersheda had illegally taped Rappo’s conversations. Rybolovlev was charged as an accomplice in that invasion-of-privacy case.

Chernitsyn referred to an Oct. 19 statement when Rybolovlev said he had done nothing illegal. “All my actions in this matter have had only one purpose -- to uncover a massive fraud in the art market,” Rybolovlev said in that statement.

Bersheda has also denied any wrongdoing and previously said, “there has been no crime committed other than possibly the biggest art fraud in history.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.