"There is a saying in French: When you want to get rid of your dog, say it has rabies," Rappo says. "He wanted to discredit Bouvier." And as for his putative vendetta against Rappo? She alleges that Rybolovlev and his lawyers have gone after her and not just Bouvier because they "must find a way to link the case to Monaco. The paintings were not sold here."
The looting and illicit export of art treasures is not a new problem. It’s happened whenever there have been armed conflicts during which victorious troops plundered churches, temples and other buildings. Germany carried out massive looting in World War II. By the start of the 21st Century the trade in illicit antiquities had become so huge it was worth billions of dollars each year and was the biggest international crime outside drug and arms trafficking according to The New York Times. When a piece is stolen, the consequence for scholars is tragic, because essential information about the piece – where it was found, what else was with it – is lost forever.
"Mr. R would like to meet you in his office," Bersheda says. "It's cozier." We walk down the hall and confront a wooden door without handles. I pause. It slides apart as if we're in a James Bond movie, and behind it stands Rybolovlev with an unexpectedly warm smile. He's slim and dressed in a crisp blue-and-white-striped shirt, charcoal pants, and black velvet slippers—a signature Russian touch. "Thank you for coming," he says. He looks younger than in photographs, and softer, perhaps because he's not wearing his usual rectangular metal-rimmed spectacles.
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It is a very pretentious title, but yeah I was a big-time smuggler. I was very ambitious. It all started to get serious when I went to Russia after Beirut. In Russia the art smugglers all worked together so that they could have their claws in many different countries overseas. So if you were "in the game" and a promising prospect like I probably was and had contacts with one clan, you could have contacts with all the clans. I was involved in a big way because I knew all the people and could reach out to them. I could get to the countries behind the iron curtain. I was also dealing with VIPs. Don't think this was some kind of scumbag organization-we were dealing with people who were very high up on the political ladder. All you had to do was make sure everybody had his cut.
So the first thing that I would do would be to subpoena the brokers and the people, the other people that were involved in the transactions, and the title companies and the other intermediaries that would have that kind of information. Then I would go to the banks next. But I actually think some of the intermediary entities in a lot of these transactions are going to be where a lot of the information is….
The cringeworthy part of the story is when the Times trots out the continuing battle between Yves Bouvier and Dimitry Rybolovlev to suggest malfeasance because Mr. Bouvier was allowed to sell a work for Mr. Rybolovlev but not pass the money through to his client. The joke here is that Rybolovlev, a Russian who lives in Monaco and banks in Cyprus while engaging is massive art deals and, separately, massive real estate deals, is a guy with the kind of profile that pops red flags in KYC reviews for more detailed review.
We went with the police and about 20 Nigerians into the gallery the day before the opening. There were all of these fucking posh people sipping champagne, and in we came to shut it down. You should've seen their fucking jaws! I made a statement: "Don't touch the heritage of these people!" And it's not that I was a white knight-not at all. But I began to come across certain things that I just couldn't step over.
DMITRY RYBOLOVLEV SELDOM gives interviews. The 49-year-old Russian—one of the richest people in the world, with a net worth estimated at $8.8 billion—is notoriously private, and also notoriously security-conscious, perhaps because back in the 1990s, while building up Uralkali, one of the world's largest fertilizer companies, he survived a year in a Russian prison and several murder attempts.
E was established in the international art market, as well as the black market at the time. He must have seen some potential in me. Obviously you had to take risks in the art smuggling world, and he probably saw me as somebody who would take them, which was indeed true. I had a Dutch passport as well, which I'm sure didn't hurt. So E wanted me to take these stolen antique byzantine oil lamps and crucifixes back with me to Holland. I did, and sold them for top dollar to private collectors in Europe.
There are no accepted estimates on the amounts of money laundered through the art market, although the general belief is that it is enormous and expanding as regulations on other asset classes, from real estate to foreign exchange, tighten up everywhere. The International Monetary Fund estimated that "the amount available for laundering through the financial system" was worth 2.7 per cent of global gross domestic product in 2009 or $1.6-trillion (U.S.).
Briefly: On New Year's Eve 2014, Rybolovlev found himself at the Eden Rock St. Bart's eating with Sandy Heller, a New York art consultant who advises many hedge fund managers. Somewhat obliquely Heller said, "It looks like you bought the Modigliani [we sold]." He was referring to Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion, one of the artist's most famous canvases, painted in 1917. The painting had belonged to Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC Capital Advisors and also one of the richest men in the world.
In the interviews, Simpson is cagey about some of his business practices, and professes ignorance about the sources used by Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer who assembled the reports in the dossier. (Since lying to the committee would be a crime, it’s reasonable to assume his testimony is not deliberately false.) What’s most interesting is all the threads Simpsons mentions about possible Trump connections he’d reviewed with various Russians, with mobsters, and with others. For the most part, they’re just allegations: If Simpson has proof, it’s not disclosed in the transcripts. More often, they seem like tantalizing possibilities worth exploring more, but which Simpson was unable to nail down.
This would all just be face-palm silliness on the Times’s part, a reflection of its editorial disconnect between the culture pages and the business staff, if the story didn’t also glide over the real point of what is going on here. The best protected transactions in the art market are those that pass through the auction houses because those firms do the KYC due diligence that squelch money laundering. Auction houses have compliance staff and are easily monitored by the law enforcement which doesn’t crack down on large private transactions that take place through lawyers or dealers. The Times admits this when they point out that Jho Low passed KYC diligence before it was revealed that he was involved in the 1MDB transactions. After it was revealed, he is no longer able to access art markets through the auction houses.
Of course that’s why money laundering exists. One of the simplest ways to do it is to create a web of offshore companies strategically located in countries that don’t ask a lot of questions about where the money came from, but are just happy to take their cut. Many are the usual suspects in the Caribbean, but other favorites include the Seychelles, Cook Islands — which are now being called the Crook Islands by the natives thanks to their sudden surge in popularity as an offshore destination — and of course, Cyprus, which is heavily favored by Russians.
These offshore companies can cross borders, invest and transfer cash between each other, and after creating a frustrating enough web of transfers and exchanges, as many of them as vague and anonymous as possible mid-transit, they can invest in money-making ventures. Over time, they build small empires in their target destinations, which for Russians are often Switzerland and the UK, particularly London. But that’s fairly basic. The real pros are a lot sneakier than that, using charitable organizations and nonprofits as their identity shields.
He soon joined Ekaterina and Elena in Geneva. However, in their new home, despite their vast wealth, the Rybolovlevs were isolated. Although Elena eventually learned to speak fluent French, her husband "was always distracted by business. I couldn't clear my mind," he says. One of the first friends they made was Tania Rappo, the wife of their dentist, who happened to mention that his wife spoke Russian. (Rappo comes from Bulgaria, where the language is spoken by about a third of the population.)
← The crate went through customs with a valuation of $100, though it contained Basquiat’s 1982 painting Hannibal (commodities valued under $200 aren’t required to be declared at customs.) The painting had been bought and shipped by Brazilian Banker Edemar cid Ferreira in an elaborate scheme to launder over $50 million that was illegally obtained when Ferreira’s bank, Banco Santos, went bankrupt.