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.
Rybolovlev has turned up the legal pressure on Bouvier. Beyond getting him arrested in Monaco, the oligarch’s legal team, headed by Tetiana Bersheda, got Singapore’s High Court to impose a $500 million freeze on Bouvier's assets, his MEI Invest Limited, and supposed accomplice Tania Rappo. In Geneva, public prosecutor Jean-Bernanrd Schmid conducted a search in Natural Le Coultre’s headquarters and a gallery looking for documents related to the Modigliani and Da Vinci transactions. Rybolovlev is operating through the two holding companies that own the art collection, Accent Delight International and Xitrans Finance.
The United States similarly requires all cash transactions of $10,000 or more to be reported. Still, laundering involving art tends to be handled case by case. Federal prosecutors, who usually discover art-related laundering through suspicious banking activity or illegal transport across borders, have worked closely with other countries and aggressively used their powers under civil law to confiscate art that they can establish is linked to a crime, even in the absence of a criminal conviction.
The Chinese art market, where regulation is lax, is thought to be particularly prone to money laundering. "The [Chinese] art market has become more and more abnormal," Wang Shouzhi, dean of the Cheung Kong School of Art and Design at Shantou University, told the South China Morning Post in April. "It is saturated with business tricks, fake works and fake prices. … It has become a tool for corruption and money laundering."
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.
Former Russian presidential placeholder, and current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev could teach a master class in how these advanced schemes work. Using non-profits and LLCs run by his friends from law school, he was able to secure three massive compounds in Russia, a pair of yachts, run a secret mega-farm, an exclusive vineyard, turn an 18th century palace in his hometown of St. Petersburg into ultra-luxury condos, acquire a pair of yachts, and buy a castle and wine-making operation in Tuscany.
Around 2003 the Rybolovlevs decided to build an art collection—"the best in the world," Dmitry has been quoted as saying. They had recently moved into a house with light fixtures for art displays, and with the help of Rappo they were making inroads among a Western European elite that spent its considerable wealth on art. Rybolovlev soon settled on his first acquisition: Le Grand Cirque, one of Marc Chagall's many beloved circus paintings. (The previous owner of the house, who had left the fixtures, owned a Chagall.) He consulted several dealers, and the best price was $8 million, according to Rappo. However, she came up with a way to eliminate the dealers and buy directly from Le Grand Cirque's owner, lowering the price by more than $2 million—and, pivotally, bringing Rybolovlev into contact with Yves Bouvier.
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.