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In the shady world of art, private transactions are amongst the most opaque, which is exactly what this case is about. Bouvier, who takes credit in having built Rybolovlev’s collection into “one of the finest in the world,” admits to having worked with the oligarch for ten years, having sold him forty “major works,” reportedly from artists including Picasso, Gauguin, Degas, and even a controversial Da Vinci. Specifically, Rybolovlev’s family trust (which controls his collection) claims Bouvier defrauded them by taking a broker’s commission of 2% while charging an illegal, and hyperbolic, markup, using offshore companies to disguise his interventions.
“The tax laws in art make it basically legal to not pay taxes on art. If you’re a serious art buyer, you just get a good tax accountant,” former New York-based art consultant Beth Fiore tells Hopes&Fears. “If you show newly purchased works in certain museums then you never have to pay taxes on it.” Edward Winkleman of Winkleman Gallery maintains that his gallery keeps fastidious records of all transactions and pays taxes even on cash sales. But he admits that, “the state generally wouldn't question what is reported.” He also tells us that individual sales don’t need to be reported, only the totals for each quarter. Hypothetically, someone could buy millions of dollars worth of art without the IRS knowing, and then later sell those works for a “legitimate” profit that looks clean on taxes.
Stories of art and money laundering tend to be media friendly, and often involve the wealthy behaving poorly. In one notorious case, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) seized, via a civil forfeiture action, Jean Michel Basquiat’s 1981 painting, Hannibal. This work — later returned to Brazil by the DOJ — had been smuggled into the U.S. by Edemar Cid Ferreira, a former Brazilian banker who was convicted of money laundering and other offenses, and who allegedly converted some of his laundered proceeds into a significant art collection. According to the DOJ, although Hannibal had been appraised at a value of $8 million, it had been smuggled by Ferreira into the U.S. from Brazil, via the Netherlands, with false shipping invoices stating that the contents of the shipment were worth $100. Other stories provide less genteel tales of drug cartels, terrorist organizations and other criminal syndicates financing themselves through systemic looting and the illicit antiquities trade.
If the BSA is extended to apply to dealers in art and antinquities, FinCEN can expect a robust notice and comment period for the implementing regulations. Further, when proposing such regulations, FinCEN might draw upon some existing AML guidelines for the art trade, including those from two not-for-profit groups — one independent, the other supported by industry. We explore those guidelines in the rest of this post.
Once purchased, the art can disappear from view for years, even decades. A lot of the art bought at auctions goes to freeports – ultra-secure warehouses for the collections of millionaires and billionaires, ranging from Picassos and gold to vintage Ferraris and fine wine. The freeports, which exist in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Singapore, offer a variety of tax advantages because the goods stored in them are technically in transit. The Economist magazine reported that the freeport near the Geneva airport alone is thought to hold $100-billion (U.S.) of art.
In 2008, Elena Rybolovleva, Dmitry's wife of 24 years, whom he met on the first day at medical college back in Russia, filed for divorce, citing adultery on an industrial scale, including parties aboard yachts at which Dmitry shared "young conquests with his friends and other oligarchs." ("He was not a model husband," a spokesman for Dmitry later told the New York Times. "Mr. Rybolovlev never denied the infidelities, but the wife knew about it for many years and passively accepted it.") In the wake of what would become an exceptionally acrimonious divorce battle (which included Elena's being arrested in Cyprus for allegedly stealing a $28 million diamond ring she later proved her ex- husband had given her while they were still married), Dmitry began seeing art as an investment for his daughters' futures, he says. He subsequently started moving the collection into vaults (trophy works by Matisse, Klimt, Rodin, and Magritte by now had joined the stockpile). The art was owned by trusts, which, Elena complained, were designed to thwart her access to the couple's fortune in divorce court. The divorce (which, Dmitry confided exclusively to T&C, was finally settled in October for an undisclosed amount) was at one time famous for being the most expensive in the world, after a Geneva judge awarded Elena half of her ex-husband's fortune, some $4 billion.
This panel will be part of a day-long forum at the University, co-hosted by Professor Alexander Cooley, Associate Professor Tonya Lee Putnam and Adjunct Professor Matthew Murray. The Forum aims to stimulate in-depth discussion among academics and professionals and generate systemic and innovative solutions to counter the rise of kleptocracy. Other panelists will explore law enforcement and expanding the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as well as the challenges of investigating and researching oligarchs. The event will feature leading U.S. experts and scholars from law enforcement, academia, journalism, and finance.
However, probably the most dramatic case of looted antiquities concerns the notorious £100m ($167m) Sevso treasure, a magnificent cache of late Roman silver dating from the fourth or fifth Century AD and comprising inlaid platters, ewers and bowls, which was unearthed in the 1970s, almost certainly in Hungary. The finder, a Hungarian soldier, was later found hanged in a cellar, and two of his friends died in unexplained circumstances. The silver – contained in a giant copper cauldron which he had buried in the cellar – had disappeared.
Law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad say “Hannibal” is just one of thousands of valuable artworks being used by criminals to hide illicit profits and illegally transfer assets around the globe. As other traditional money-laundering techniques have come under closer scrutiny, smugglers, drug traffickers, arms dealers and the like have increasingly turned to the famously opaque art market, officials say.
But given his recent history of making splashy but unsupported claims, it’s difficult to grant Nunes the benefit of the doubt. In the spring, he made a series of extremely serious allegations against the Obama administration, including improper surveillance of Trump aides. No proof of those allegations emerged, and the Justice Department has since said there was no surveillance. It soon became clear that Nunes was receiving information from White House staffers (who have since been pushed out of the White House), even as he was overseeing an ostensibly independent investigation into the president.
On April 2nd, the New Directions in Anti-Kleptocracy Forum, organized by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, will identify emerging issue areas relating to kleptocracy. I am excited to be serving as a co-panelist on the forum’s Art Market as a Node of Kleptocracy panel, which will discuss beneficial ownership and the luxury art market. Money Laundering Watch recently addressed the relationship between art and money laundering, a topic of growing interest.
So, with the help of a girlfriend who speaks better English, the potentate asked Heller, "What price did you sell it for?" The answer: $93 million, $25 million less than Rybolovlev's trusts had paid for it. Chuckling, Rybolovlev tells me his fellow diners at the Eden Rock "thought I was having a stroke." Less cheerfully he says it was the worst New Year's Eve of his life. Within minutes he was on the phone to Bersheda. For years, according to Rybolovlev, he believed he had been paying the middleman who had sold him the Modigliani (above)—as well as 37 other museum-worthy paintings—a commission of 2 percent (in other words, about $2 million for the Modigliani, not $25 million). He was now realizing every collector's worst fear: He had been fleeced, and the question was, for how long and how much?
Of course, beyond AML-related process concerns, any art dealer — just like any business person — always must remember that just about any financial transaction that involves proceeds known to have originated from illegal activity represents a criminal money laundering offense. Stated otherwise, even if the BSA is not expanded to include dealers in art and antiquities, those in the U.S. art industry still need to bear in mind, in extreme examples, the omnipresent federal criminal code. Sometimes, the provenance of the funds can be more critical than the provenance of the art.