Sotheby’s defeats Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev in art fraud case

NEW YORK – A federal jury in the United States on Jan 30 ruled in favour of Sotheby’s at a trial in which the Russian billionaire oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev accused the auction house of defrauding him out of tens of millions of dollars in art sales.

He accused Sotheby’s of conspiring with Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier to trick him into paying inflated prices for four works including Salvator Mundi, a depiction of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci that would become the most expensive artwork sold at auction.

Sotheby’s, which is privately held, had long maintained that it had no knowledge that Mr Bouvier might have lied, and that it was not liable for his dealings with Mr Rybolovlev.

Mr Bouvier was not a defendant, and has maintained he did nothing wrong.

Mr Rybolovlev, 57, is worth US$6.4 billion (S$8.5 billion) after building his fortune in potash fertiliser, according to Forbes magazine. He is also majority owner of the AS Monaco football team, though it has been reported this year to be exploring a sale.

Mr Daniel Kornstein, a lawyer for Mr Rybolovlev, said the case “achieved our goal of shining a light on the lack of transparency that plagues the art market”. He added: “That secrecy made it difficult to prove a complex aiding and abetting fraud case.”

Sotheby’s said the verdict reaffirmed its commitment to upholding the highest standards of integrity, ethics and professionalism, and reflected a “glaring lack of evidence” that it cheated Mr Rybolovlev.

The case has been among the highest-profile art fraud disputes in recent years, offering a view into an often secretive industry where wealthy buyers sometimes do not know who they are buying from.

Jurors in Manhattan federal court needed less than a day to reach a verdict, in a trial that lasted about three weeks.

US District Judge Jesse Furman had last March let Mr Rybolovlev pursue fraud-based claims over the da Vinci, and works by Gustav Klimt, Rene Magritte and Amedeo Modigliani.

Mr Rybolovlev originally sued Sotheby’s over 15 pieces of world-class art for which he paid more than US$1 billion, and accused Mr Bouvier of charging hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden mark-ups.

Justice Furman dismissed fraud-based claims over the other 11 works, including art from Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Mr Rybolovlev was allowed to sue over Salvator Mundi even though his ownership had proven unusually profitable.

According to court papers, Mr Bouvier bought the da Vinci for US$83 million in 2013 and sold it the next day to Mr Rybolovlev for US$127.5 million.

Mr Rybolovlev went on to sell Salvator Mundi at Christie’s in 2017 for US$450.3 million, a record price for an artwork at auction. REUTERS

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